In this post, Justice Everywhere’s Nicolás Brando and his co-editor Gottfried Schweiger introduce their recently-published collection on philosophy and child poverty.
Philosophy and Child Poverty: Reflections on the Ethics and Politics of Poor Children and their Families (2019) is the first full volume to address child poverty from a philosophical perspective. It brings together contributions from a plurality of philosophical approaches, providing an ample exploration into the conceptual, ontological, normative and applied questions that arise when looking at child poverty as a philosophical subject.
Why should philosophy look into child poverty? Isn’t child poverty an issue for the social sciences, and social and development policies? There are various reasons why it may be important to have the philosophical discipline reflecting about poverty and childhood. Firstly, we believe that philosophy has something valuable to contribute to the understanding, evaluation and alleviation of child poverty. If one does not stand on an assumption that pure quantitative analyses of efficiency can solve poverty, we need philosophical reflection to understand and conceptualise what poverty is, to clarify its particular manifestations during childhood, and to build cohesive normative structures to guide our policies and practices to alleviate this evil.
A philosophical take on child poverty does not substitute social research on the issue, but rather complements it. We believe that philosophy, if concerned with real world issues such as child poverty, does not only depend on the data produced by theoretical research but should enter into a closer cooperation and engage in a mutual learning process with more empirical research on the subject. Empirical research on child poverty is full of conceptual, theoretical and methodological considerations worthy of philosophical attention. Likewise, empirical research can be enriched and improved by learning from philosophy and its particular perspective, its analytical and evaluative work.
How does the book intend to contribute?
We believe that child poverty research faces three main challenges in which philosophical reflection can be of relevance: conceptualising, evaluating, and prescribing to child poverty.
Depending on our moral commitments, and the case in mind, what is understood by ‘poverty’ and how it should be evaluated changes drastically. The same variation is true for the case of child poverty, where not only our definitions of poverty change due to the incapacity of certain traditional metrics to apply to childhood (think of income metrics, for example) but also because what is understood as ‘childhood’ varies. Standard measurements and analyses of poverty (in general) fail when assessing child poverty because the condition and experience of poverty during childhood cannot be framed within these standard evaluative mechanisms. How these concepts and related theories can be applied properly to children (as opposed to adult) remains a key challenge.
These discussions are philosophically relevant, and philosophy might contribute to them. They are philosophically relevant because all discussions about (social and global) justice for children or rights and responsibilities of and towards children somehow must deal with the obvious fact that some children are worse-off than others and that poverty plays an important role here. So, if philosophy wants to engage with the real-world problems children face today, what might be unjust about them and how they should be resolved, it is dependent on such conceptual questions, which underlie all knowledge we have about child poverty as well other inequalities in children’s lives. This should not be understood as saying that philosophy has the key to solve all normative and conceptual issues in poverty research, but it does claim that philosophy can offer a unique approach to how these normative and conceptual issues can be understood.
The second contribution relates to the normative evaluation of child poverty and the deconstruction of the many ethical issues involved in child poverty. Is child poverty unjust or otherwise morally bad? What kind of theory of justice or morality is needed to make such an evaluation? As many have noticed before, philosophy and theories of justice are often based on assumptions about the rationality of agent, which do not fit in the case of children. An inclusive understanding of justice and equality is needed in order to account for the particularities of childhood. Furthermore, it needs to be examined what kinds of goods are at stake when normatively assessing what is owed to children in poverty, and how can we value and evaluate them. The discussions about kindergoods and the value of childhood and child well-being feeds into this question.
Here, descriptive empirical observations and normative assumptions meet again, forcing philosophical analyses to face the task to come up with a substantial concept of childhood both as a social and a biological phase, of the social setting in which children are embedded, and of their agency, capacities, vulnerabilities and development. All these are of (potential) ethical weight to a normative evaluation of child poverty, especially when evaluating the potential interests and claims that children have as individuals being in poverty in the present, and how this affects and frames them throughout their whole life-course.
Finally, a third way in which philosophy contributes to child poverty research is by exploring the duty bearers, responsibilities, policies and politics tied to child poverty alleviation. Closely related to the evaluative challenge is the task of reflecting on reasonable and feasible applications of the theory to prevent and alleviate child poverty. This involves the search for ways to pin down particular responsibilities and the agents (individual or collective) who must carry them out. Most often, discussions on responsibility targets the family and the state as primary duty-bearers, and the relation and allocation of responsibilities between the state and the family is not straightforward, involving issues of privacy, consent, self-determination, parental and children’s rights (and duties) and paternalism, to name just a few. . Besides the family and the state other potential agents of justice with moral responsibilities might be pinned down: companies and multinational corporations, who exploit children and their parents, transnational organizations like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund, which shape the economic and social policies of poorer countries and how child poverty is tackled. Understanding responsibility for child poverty, thus, must think beyond the state and the family as the sole duty-bearers.
What’s in the book?
This edited volume is divided into three parts, each addressing the issue of child poverty from a different philosophical angle. The first part of the book (‘Definitions and Measurements’) deals with philosophical questions on the conceptualisation and measurement of child poverty. An important task at hand is to explore the ways in which philosophical and ethical research may contribute to our understanding of poverty during childhood. The chapters in this section address structural questions on how to conceptualise what childhood and poverty are, and the amendments required by the particularities of children when assessing their poverty status.
The second part (‘Children and Families Living in Poverty’) brings together contributions that explore the condition of children and families living in poverty. The situation of children living in deprivation is also intertwined and highly conditioned by various phenomena, while affecting how we understand other relevant philosophical issues. Thus, this part intends to explore the ways in which research in other philosophical topics (such as gender or disability) may feed into the discussion on child poverty. Furthermore, chapters in this section address the issues that arise from the dependence of children on the family structure and their parents’ quality of life. If the family structure suffers great deprivations and parents cannot fulfil their own basic needs, children tend to get the worst out of the situation.
Finally, the third part (‘Rights, Responsibilities and Policies’) explores what are the responsibilities, who are the duty bearers, and what policy mechanisms are available to tackle child and family poverty. Many social institutions and agents play a determinant role on a child’s life, and the sources of responsibility towards the alleviation of childhood poverty may rest in many hands. The last part of the book intends to explore the potential ways in which responsibility may be assigned, and possible mechanisms that could deal with poverty during childhood.
“Child poverty is both important and urgent. The book edited by Brando and Schweiger addresses key-questions: what child poverty is, what causes it, what is wrong with it, and who should do what in order to eradicate or mitigate it. This is pioneering work – indeed, the volume is one of the very few existing philosophical treatments of the problems raised by child poverty.” (Anca Gheaus, Ramon y Cajal researcher at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Spain)
“Surprisingly this is the first book explicitly devoted to a topic that demands our urgent attention. Much of the literature on children’s rights has been rather abstract. Yet the problem of how poverty affects children in particular is a vitally important one and also of international scope. This book is thus most welcome and its international roster of contributing authors promises a rich, wide ranging and vitally relevant discussion.” (David Archard, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Queen’s University Belfast)