Furthermore, research and surveys on poor families require a great deal of time and effort. It is difficult to ask about details of family finances from the aspect of privacy. Moreover, there may even be parents who feel outrage at having their family regarded as being poor or toward people who relate their child's problem to poverty. With the exception of sociologists whose main theme is the problem of poverty or researchers who are often in contact with poor families in order to support them from the viewpoint of child welfare, poverty is a very sensitive and difficult theme to deal with.
There are several reasons why the theme of poverty had not been brought up in discussing children's issues. The first was based on the unspoken agreement that we should not relate children's problems to poverty since it runs a risk of hurting the feelings of a needy family and of excluding them from the community. People in education were especially very sensitive about taking such a risk. Recently, many sociological surveys concerning the relation between academic ability and financial background were published and the term, "cycle of poverty" became commonly known even among ordinary people. However, until then, these ideas related to poverty had long been regarded as taboo.
What is understood from these findings is that the poverty rate can be improved by changing government policy, the nation's system and basically the whole concept of what society should be. The idea that economic growth and market revitalization are the only prescriptions against poverty is a falsehood. Improving the poverty rate depends on people's sense of value and what society thinks is important and puts priority on.
Figure 2: Child poverty rate, Report Card 10, Innocenti Research Centre, UNICEF
(Percentage of children living in households with an equivalent income lower than 50% of the national median)
Poverty is not only a financial plight. It includes various problems that are derived from poverty. Trouble in daily life is often seen as being caused not by poverty, but by personality problems. In this way, impoverished people are sometimes excluded from society rather than rescued by it. For example, children who are neglected by parents who are struggling to make a living are at a risk of being negatively labeled as just dirty, sloppy, or stupid.
Makoto Yuasa, a former advisor to the Cabinet Office who has been working for homeless people and advocating for their rights stated that, "The most prominent characteristic of poverty is that it's invisible, which makes it difficult to grasp the problems and actual situations involved." He then added that, "Seeing or visualizing poverty concurrently includes trying to see circumstances and conditions of people in poverty that we cannot see from the surface.
In contrast, in advanced countries, it is hard to recognize poverty so it tends to be excluded. In a prosperous society, poverty is uncommon; a phenomenon people want to refuse to acknowledge if possible. It is not an issue everyone wants to share. Especially, in a society like Japan where people put importance on cleanliness and homogeneity, impoverished people are likely to hesitate to reveal their plight. There are even those who commit suicide not because of poverty itself but because of the shame they feel about being poor.
For example, in developing countries, poor people can be seen everywhere. On the streets there are various kinds of beggars and in the shadows there are prostitutes. Children plot to get tips by taking tourists to souvenir shops. The hungry try to get scraps of bread by hanging around restaurants. There, poverty is too pervasive to be hidden and there is less likelihood that a person will be excluded only because he or she is poor.
The truth of the matter is that the difficulty in raising awareness about poverty is deeply related to the nature of poverty. This becomes especially important when thinking about poverty in advanced nations.
Still, I don't think the difficulty stems from those clear-cut reasons, but rather from the fact that most researchers simply do not have a clear image of poverty itself. From the beginning, researchers at universities had been raised without the experience of having contact with people from poor families. To have received years of education, including graduate school, in order to become a teacher of higher education, it would have been necessary for their parents to have had sufficient finances. Most researchers had been high-achieving students who entered a competitive school and had been raised surrounded by other bright children from a similar income bracket. Even when they try to do something about children's issues, there are very few researchers who can easily imagine the situations of families in extreme poverty or parents with low education. In addition to that, since pedagogy, psychology and so forth tend to base their research on an average child whose minimal economic circumstances are secured, children in poor families become farther and farther removed from researchers' awareness.
However, in recent years, child poverty suddenly came to be an issue and when reading books about child poverty I cannot help but feel a sense of regret that many of the agendas we dealt with in the past could not bring about effective discussion due to a lack of perspective on poverty. For example, had we added the viewpoint of poverty to the problems of children, such as non-attendance at school, abuse, delinquency, low academic achievement and so forth, we would have had much more meaningful discussions that recognized the actual situations at hand. I find it unfortunate that this was not the case.
For those of us who study Child Science, what kind of meaning does it have to think about child poverty? The author has been editing a magazine that deals with children's issues over a number of years and is now in charge of general management of the Japanese Society of Child Science as a secretary-general. For close to two decades I have done feature magazine articles and have held symposiums and lectures concerning various children's problems while discussing these issues with many researchers and professionals in pedagogy, developmental psychology, pediatrics and so forth. However, rarely have we taken on these problems from the perspective of poverty.