The perils of being a child born into a poor family: Blaming Little Jesus?

The perils of being a child born into a poor family: Blaming Little Jesus?

Since the day I first read Jose Mauro de Vasconcelos’ master piece My Sweet Orange Tree, I started getting interested in the topic of poverty, particularly child poverty. The little Zeze’s story, which took place in the outskirts of Sao Paulo, was so touching that I remember putting myself in Zeze’s shoes and asking the same unanswerable questions: God, why is life so hard for some? As you see, everyone is good hearted in the family…. I dropped my gaze and I started thinking of Little Jesus who only likes rich people as Totoca said… You are bad little Jesus… Why do you not like me just you like the other kids? I sat still, I did not fight, I studied my lessons, I did not swear. Why did you do this to me little Jesus?

I believe every child who is born into a poor family asks similar questions no matter whether she is living in the squatter towns of Istanbul or the villas miserias of Buenos Aires. After all, poverty is a structural problem transcending nationalities, regions, or religions. This became more obvious to me as I saw several small children selling things either on the streets of Buenos Aires, in “subtes” (subways), “collectivos” (buses) distributing angel cards, selling chocolates, tissues, etc. just like I saw in Istanbul in the low-income neighborhoods of Bağcılar, Kartal, Sultanbeyli, or Ümraniye. Then, I paid more attention to the children in nice clothes holding their parents’ hands with a big smile on their faces as I passed through the streets or took subways or buses. Should I feel happy about these children, I asked myself? Or should I feel sorry for their counterparts who are compelled to work to contribute to the limited budget of their families? Or both? Then, I started to think through the underlying tenets of neoliberal ideology and individualism, such as: “Equality of outcome is impossible, but at least we can make sure that some sort of equality of opportunity exists. Everybody is responsible for the outcomes in one’s life, after all if you work hard you can make it. History is full of these success stories.” At that point I questioned these underlying principles more than I had ever done before. There is no such world, I found myself telling myself. No one can make me believe that there is equality of opportunity between this little lucky girl in neat clothes holding her mother’s hand and the other girl who is selling tissue in the subte in Buenos Aires.

I find myself asking: What is the solution then? This is a global problem which millions and millions of children born into destitute families face in their lives. It was somewhat mainstream, but I could not come up with any other solution than launching a better taxation system in order to assure that grave disparities between the poor and wealthy could be mitigated to a certain level and assuring that all children had their health controls and pursued a standard level of education without being compelled to work.

In recent decades, many developing countries, among them Turkey and Argentina, have actually begun to implement a unique and innovative form of social welfare program known as conditional cash transfers. The Turkish version of this program is called Conditional Aid (Şartlı Eğitim Yardımı and Şartlı Sağlık Yardımı), which started as part of a World Bank-assisted Social Risk Mitigation Project in 2002, while its Argentine counterpart is called Universal Child Allowance for Social Protection (Asignación Universal por Hijo para Protección Social), a program started in 2009, by the current President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Conditional Cash Transfers aim to reduce poverty by transferring money to low-income mothers on the condition that they send their children to school or take them to health centers regularly. I believe these programs could be key throughout the developing world in combating child poverty and improving the conditions of poor children. The amount paid per each child could be increased and a better information dissemination system could be established, so that every poor family knows the program exists, along with the application process and the conditions of the program.

I do believe that we owe these improvements for the future of our children, and more concerted action is warranted to overcome the hurdles in the lives of poor children. We owe this to our kids so that maybe one day we can create a world where children do not repeat Zeze’s questions, and all wake up with a big smile on their faces, regardless of where they live or which family they are born into.