The lottery of birth and equity in childhood


Ensuring that children develop all their potentialities and find contentment in all aspects of life is unquestionably one of the basic motivations of all the people who devote themselves to children’s welfare. Indeed, we seek to foster their personal, social, cultural and economic progress. To achieve this end, it is necessary to do away with the barriers to children’s equality of opportunities and this calls in turn for appropriate public policies.

When we speak of actions aimed to fight against poverty, however, the public debate becomes polarised and the opposition to the implementation of such actions grows.

Pro-equity policies

Almost unconsciously, society associates poverty with the occurrence of adverse situations involving unforeseen financial expenses, or else with unwise decisions. With respect to such situations, there is a certain consensus on defending that the welfare state should cover citizens against specific misfortunes, but this opinion diverges when the unforeseen situation in question is attributable to personal decisions. It is hard for people to uphold the existence of ties of solidarity if they feel that they are contributing to the financing of public policies whose beneficiaries do not contribute with their effort to solve their situation.

The fact is often concealed that different finishing positions are derived, in reality, from likewise different starting situations.

This is an opinion that is based on an analogy between “the position held by a person in society” and “the effort that a person has made”. By accepting this opinion, the fact is concealed that different finishing positions are derived, in reality, from likewise different starting situations, in which genes, individual preferences, family and social context form different start corrals.

If inequality is socially understood as the existence of different social positions, poverty is a sort of quicksand, a multidimensional process that limits people’s capacities and affects all aspects of their lives.

We understand “poverty” as a situation of constant stress that is sustained over time, consuming a large part of people’s cognitive resources resources which, in this context, are directed towards urgently covering the most basic needs, thus impairing the decision-making structure and hampering the development of medium- and long-term social progress strategies. Poverty is a process that harms people’s physical and psychological health, forming a burden for their personal and social development and causing a rift in the course of children’s education. What’s more, in most cases, poverty is a phenomenon which is transmitted from generation to generation.

Pre-redistribution: equality of opportunities is rooted in childhood

If we focus on childhood, the idea of meritocracy must be rejected. The material conditions in which children are born and raised are not attributable to their effort, but rather to what has been called the “lottery of birth”. Inasmuch as the detrimental effects of living a childhood in a situation of scarcity are steadily being more fully documented, and since these effects last for life, the public authorities’ commitment to policies that fight against poverty in childhood is essential since these policies ensure the exercise of the most fundamental rights and the acquisition of the necessary social, cultural and financial capital for children’s appropriate development.

The early years of life are an especially sensitive period and for this reason childhood policies are a strategic commitment to the development of society as a whole.

The policies that promote equity in childhood are often called pre-distributive” because they are an investment that deactivates or corrects the multiplier effects of experiences of adversity before such experiences actually occur. The early years of life are an especially sensitive period: the neuronal circuits and the principal behaviours are malleable, that is to say, they are more receptive to environmental influences. Childhood policies are a strategic commitment to the development of society as a whole.

Income transfer

An income policy is a financial transfer to a person or a household unit from the public sector. Such “extra” income may be of universal character, when it is addressed to the whole population, or it may be focused on a collective of people who have some characteristic in common, such as having left the labour market after contributing to the Social Security for a period of years (pensions), or not reaching a specific income threshold (benefits).

As opposed to benefits of a material nature or in kind, income transfer preserves the autonomy and freedom of people, who retain the ability to prioritise their own expenses and the consumer goods which they purchase. Income policies can allow recipients to avoid the dishonour which may otherwise be entailed by shopping in specific establishments, and this characteristic, together with the fact that monitoring by the social services may not necessarily be required, has been praised because it does not stigmatise the beneficiaries of this type of policies. What’s more, these policies may be accompanied by other interventions, such as the acquisition of parental skills, in order to favour the integral and integrated promotion of persons.

A substantial volume of experiences exists, allowing us to consider some of the results of the implementation of income policies.

At the present time, owing to the context of the pandemic, the lockdown and especially the closure of the direct assistance of the public services, these policies have aroused renewed interest and received new thrust. The emergence of the minimum vital income in Catalonia is a good example of this. Nevertheless, a large number of policies of this type had already been implemented around the world and a substantial volume of experiences exists, allowing us to consider some of the results of the implementation of income policies.

What do these experiences tell us? First of all, contrary to what the prevailing ideas on this matter would have us believe, an increase in income does not entail an increase in the consumption of tobacco or alcohol among adults, but rather there is a significant reduction or a cessation of these products’ consumption. The consequent improvement in the health of children already begins to occur in the gestational process. Moreover, as well as exerting a positive effect on the health of mothers, income policies lead to a reduction of the number of premature births and to an increase of infants’ weight at birth (1,2).

In contexts of social risk, it is also observed that the “increased income effect” reduces situations of violence, intra-familial abuse and negligence. Likewise, in cases of lower vulnerability, the alleviation of the financial situation favours the provision by adults of better care, improving family coexistence in this way, just as is shown by the evaluation of the Barcelona City Council’s 0-16 Childhood Fund. The change of habits, the incorporation of strategies and the investment in consumption exemplify the greater importance attributed to nutrition and to the stabilisation of meals. This is a change that contributes to the improvement of the health of children and adolescents as well as to self-perceived health (as is shown by the B-INCOME programme carried out in the neighbourhoods along the Besòs river), while also contributing to the reduction of overweight in more advanced ages.

In the socioemotional and behavioural sphere of children, the results show a generalised improvement in the well-being of girls and boys. The increase of income improves children’s attention and contributes to the reduction of hyperactivity, anxiety disorders, and physical behaviour disorders and aggressiveness, all of which are improvement factors relating in turn to emotional improvement and to a decrease in the crime rate and arrest rate of young people, among other aspects.

The most solid results, however, are to be found in the socioeducational sphere. Positive early experiences increase the value of the skills that are acquired over the course of the growth process. This aspect entails, on the one hand, a self-reinforced motivation to learn more, and on the other hand, an early mastery of a series of cognitive, social and emotional skills that will make learning more effective at subsequent ages, ensuring in this way a high possibility of pupils continuing their education.

Strictly within the field of education, the effects of income policies are usually focused on school attendance, mathematics tests and educational achievement levels. Generally speaking, there is a substantial coherent evidence base relating to the ties between cash transfer and school attendance as well as reduction of expulsions. In general terms, these policies also contribute to an increase of educational continuity and to the achievement of higher educational levels (1, 2). One positive aspect of the B-INCOME project was that it led to a reduction of 2.1 points in the probability of repeating a school year.

Income policies produce improvements in the development of mathematical, reasoning and language skills, and in memory in the short and long term.

Now, if the children from lower socioeconomic sectors in Spain show a probability that is almost 5 times higher of achieving a reading, mathematical and scientific performance that is lower than that of their fellow pupils from higher socioeconomic sectors, what does the policy of guaranteed income have to offer in this respect?

The evidence indicates that the implementation of income policies produces improvements in the development of mathematical, reasoning and language skills, and in memory in the short and long term, as well as in visual integration and language development.

Nevertheless, if an improvement does not take place in parallel in the educational system as a whole, transfers may have unforeseen effects. In the evaluation of the B-INCOME project, for example, the increase of incomes translated into a displacement of students from public schools to Government-subsidised schools. The reason for this change of schools was explained as a strategy for obtaining an education of better quality and for gaining access to social networks that would come to favour the social mobility of the children concerned.

Despite this effect, however, it may be affirmed that the increase in the income of households translates into a larger expenditure on children.

Elements to be considered in the evaluation of results

The diversity of factors involved in the makeup of an income policy (thresholds, access requirements, forms of provision or conditionalities...) have a direct influence on its results.

In Catalonia, the income guarantee system is characterised by the fact that it is primarily addressed to the occupational integration of its beneficiaries. It is programmed on the basis of a multi-level design in which the State provides an income base (the minimum vital income), on which the autonomous communities may deploy their own policies, such as the guaranteed income for citizenship in Catalonia.

Even though it could appear that the two policies should offer a conscientious protection, their integration has not come about in such a well-meshed way as would be necessary. Consequently, in spite of the incorporation into the minimum vital income of a “supplement” per child (€100 for children aged 0-3 years, €70 for children between 3 and 6 years, and €50 for children and adolescents between 6 and 18 years), one of the factors that may limit the results of these policies is the low-intensity protection of the benefits. The amounts of both policies lie very far from the costs of parenting, which have been valued by Save the Children (2022) at €819 a month per child. This entails a gap which, moreover, varies territorially, above all due to the price of housing and to the current rise in inflation, which is expected to increase with even greater intensity.

It is necessary to reaffirm the commitment aimed to ensure that children will develop all their potentialities and find contentment in all aspects of life.

Lastly, it should be pointed out that, even if there were to be an extraordinarily significant increase in incomes and interventions, the overall set of intrinsic differences between children would not be eliminated. Likewise, it would be hard to do away completely with prior experiences and interiorised reasoning or habits. Consequently, the personal, educational or social achievements that are derived from the intervention would be hard to equate with those of the rest of the girls and boys.

Public policies must be evaluated to guarantee accountability and to identify elements for improvement, but it must be recalled that these processes are very closely related to the guarantee and exercise of rights. It is therefore necessary to reaffirm the commitment aimed to ensure that children will develop all their potentialities and find contentment in all aspects of life. Determined policies of guaranteed income for families with children are necessary to achieve this goal.


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