UN Backgrounder: "Confronting Family Poverty and Social Exclusion"

International Day of Families 2011
“Confronting family poverty and social exclusion"
15 May (observed 12 May)

Background Note

Family poverty


Family poverty usually refers to households earning less than a minimum amount of income. In high and medium-income countries family poverty levels refer to incomes falling below specific annual income levels or falling below 50-60 per cent of the national median income. In low-income countries, the standard measure involves income of $1.25 per person a day. With insufficient income families are not able to perform their multiple functions, like providing nutrition, education and security for their children or adequately care for other family members. Families are vulnerable to poverty at certain stages in the family life cycle, e.g. starting a new family and during retirement. They are also more likely to fall into poverty during times of financial and economic crises.

Social exclusion


Poverty means more than income and material deprivation. Social exclusion can be seen as a form of poverty as they both originate in discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity and gender, inequality, unbalanced rural/urban development, unequal distribution of assets or unequal access to services. The excluded are mostly unable to improve their well-being due to socio-political structures of the societies they live in. Indigenous and ethnic minorities are often most affected by exclusion.


Families at risk of poverty

Recent research in the EU indicate that the persistence of poverty is higher in certain groups and types of households which continue to show a higher risk of exposure to poverty (above EU 27 median – 17 per cent): unemployed people (43 per cent), immigrants from outside EU (30-45 per cent), children in single parent households (34 per cent), persons with low educational levels (23 per cent), elderly women (22 per cent), young adults 16-24 years old (20 per cent), children (20 per cent), single parent families (34 per cent), large families (25 per cent), and single person households (25 per cent). In developing countries families most at risk of poverty are those living in rural areas, urban slums, migrant families and those affected by HIV/AIDS.


Child poverty

The cycle of poverty continues when a family remains in poverty over successive generation. Investing in children is then seen as a priority to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. Priorities in this area include: improving access to and quality of education, ensuring access to health services as well as investing in family stability. There is a strong correlation between social expenditures on children and family welfare and lower risk of families being in poverty.

Gender equality

Gender inequality continues to be a major impediment to poverty eradication. Research in developing countries indicate that the greater a woman contributes to household income, the more money is spent on food, childcare and overall family well-being. At the same time, it is important to take measures encouraging men to take up bigger share of household and care responsibilities within families.

Family-oriented anti-poverty strategies

Family-focused strategies aiming at poverty reduction often include income support policies, such as universal child allowances or child-focused earnings supplements. There is also a growing interest in specific policies in support of single-parent families, through cash allowances, tax incentives, tougher child support enforcement or by discouraging marriage dissolution. Benefits for family members caring for older persons and persons with disabilities have also been considered to help families cope with caring responsibilities and promote intergenerational support.

The importance of family-oriented strategies for poverty eradication has been increasingly gaining ground in development efforts around the world. In particular gender and child-sensitive social protection policies addressing family poverty and reducing the vulnerability of younger and older generations have been a focus of attention of increasing number of countries in developed and developing world alike.

A variety of income transfer programmes have also been enacted to help the poorest families with a main goal of addressing child poverty and breaking the intergenerational transfer of poverty and inequality. Social transfer programmes in developing countries provide cash transfers to families living in poverty or at risk of poverty. Conditional and unconditional cash transfers target families living in poverty but differ in scope and context. Initially introduced in Latin America, they are increasingly being implemented in Africa and Asia. The level of the benefit varies from 20 per cent of mean household consumption in Mexico to 4 per cent in Honduras and lower amounts for similar programmes in other countries.

Cash transfer programmes for families have been effective at improving a number of key welfare indicators of their beneficiaries. Families receiving cash transfers are more likely to use health services for both children and women and improve their nutrition. In terms of education impact, they have also been found to improve school attendance.

The most established and rigorously evaluated cash transfer programme is Mexico’s Oportunidades. Over the past ten years Oportunidades has increased the educational and health outcomes of its participants, including significant increases in school attendance, educational achievement and preventive health visits.


Opportunity NYC is the first conditional cash transfer initiative currently being  implemented in the United States. The programme provides monetary incentives to families living in poverty when they complete activities aimed at increasing human capital development and breaking the cycle of poverty.

Research and practice demonstrate that the effective delivery of social transfer programmes depends on efficient administrative structure and adequate financial capacity. Their success is also more likely if they are accompanied by adequate provision of basic social services, in particular health services, especially to those most vulnerable.




Family Platform. Social Inequality and Diversity of Families.


International Poverty Center (2008). Cash Transfers. Lessons from Africa and Latin America, Brasilia.

Opportunity NYC website (http://www.nyc.gov/html/ceo/html/programs/opportunity_nyc.shtml)

United Nations (2009). Rethinking Poverty. Report on the World Social Situation, New York.

United Nations (2010). Report of the Secretary-General on the Follow-up to the tenth anniversary of the International Year of the Family and beyond, New York.

Waldfogel, J. The role of family policies in antipoverty policy. Focus, vol. 26, No. 2, Fall 2009.

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