Childhood urban inequalities in Latin America

Professor Armando Barrientos participated in Habitat 3 – the United Nations’ 2016 Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development. A key member of the UNICEF panel, ‘Children in cities in the Latin America and Caribbean region’, he discusses factors contributing to poverty and exclusion in many Latin American countries.

Why is urban inequality such an issue for children in Latin America?

Children represent by far the majority of the population of Latin America, and are therefore overrepresented in poverty compared to other groups. This is partly because large families with lots of children tend to be poorer, and partly because when your children go to school it can be one of the more difficult points in the life cycle in terms of generating income and managing your money. Also, a lot of the policies designed to reduce poverty and inequality have not been specifically aimed at children and child poverty until recently.

“It is not necessarily that local councils are ignoring low-income families and these inequalities – it is that they don’t have the resources to reach them.”

What are some of the biggest issues that children face?

Probably the most significant issue for children is the mismatch between service provision and where children in poverty live. If you map service provision – schools, hospitals and government buildings – they are all in the centre of cities. Low-income households live far from the centre, which can mean it is hard to access services like water, sanitation, education and health care. Public agencies are supposed to help people in poverty, but they are located far away from those they need to reach.

If you look at anti-poverty programmes as an investment in children’s futures – improving things with future benefits such as their education and health care as well as current concerns such as their consumption and nutrition – then it is more likely that they will exit poverty as adults, and that their own children will not be in poverty, because they’ll have had better opportunities within the labour market, for example.

Why is this situation so complex?

This is more than a matter of low-income families being excluded. If you have new accommodation, new houses and new buildings in a particular city, then the council has a responsibility to ensure they have gas, electricity and sanitation. In a context where you can plan this, the council will approve a proposal for a new development. However, the situation in Latin America relates to informal settlements, with people taking available land, and there is no real planning system.

What are the solutions?

There is still an obligation to get water, sanitation and electricity to these areas. It takes time, but it does happen. It is a case of creating and developing an infrastructure. Property ownership needs to be considered, as most people don’t have deeds or titles to their homes. They may have migrated from rural areas 30 years ago to access schools, and the property may have changed hands four or five times and there are no titles. Legislation is a complex area and provides some protection for the initial settler, but none to people who may have bought the property and moved on, or handed it down to their children or grandchildren.

What are your recommendations for policymakers and planners?

Rather than have a radical solution that erases everything and starts again, it is more a matter of how you can accelerate existing processes of development. How you can improve them and how you can pay more attention to people living in these communities.

For me, there are three key questions for policymakers:

1. How did we get here?

Why are levels of child poverty in Latin America so high compared to other groups in the population? Governments for a long time have not seen children and families as a key audience for social protection. There has been more focus on workers in informal employment to improve family well-being.

2. What should governments focus on now?

Government has to have innovative policies that improve the prospects of children and their capacity to develop as human beings. There has been progress, with governments now starting to do this.

3. What is the end goal?

To me, this should be that our societies are more inclusive and equal. There should not be a distinction based on where families are located. Tackling the prospects of children can enable us to get to this future point.

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