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Poverty & social justice

Poverty and inequality is widespread. While the number of people in poverty is falling, inequality is increasing. Both contribute to, and are increased by, large family size. Addressing both poverty and the other contributors to large family size, particularly the lack of women’s rights and sexual and reproductive health and rights, is necessary in order to turn a vicious circle into a virtuous one.


A billion people live in extreme poverty in our world today. It is these people who are most at risk from the threats of environmental damage, climate change and the consequent loss of resources.

Most of these people live in developing countries. Some countries find themselves in a “self reinforcing poverty trap”; poor people in these countries have large families to counter high levels of child mortality and to sustain them in their old age. At societal level however, the resultant overall numbers of population together with limited resources condemn their people to ongoing poverty.

Impoverished homes

Concerted action is called for on the part of the developed world. Humanitarian assistance and development aid to provide education, encourage female empowerment and ensure access to family planning resources are necessary to help developing countries break out of their poverty trap.

Social justice

Other countries are developing unevenly, with huge numbers of extremely poor people living alongside pockets of urbanised modernity. For some people, particularly in rural areas, large families remain a way of boosting the family’s ability to generate income. However, this is becoming less true as population growth limits available per capita land resources.

For others, a desire for fewer children is frustrated as a lack of health and transport infrastructure limits access to the reliable supplies of contraception they need. On the other hand, children may be a parent’s only form of security in old-age. Where poverty results in a high rate of infant mortality, this is a further incentive for people to have more rather than fewer children.

Inequalities of wealth are significant and growing, both between countries and within both rich and poor countries.

When communities are very poor they are less able to afford reproductive health services. In addition, people are more likely to want several children to support them in old age and to help generate income, though this can be counter-productive if their well-being is really limited by the amount of land or water available to grow crops.

People migrating

Large differences in prosperity between countries drive people to migrate. Large-scale migration can undermine the stability of the destination country and deplete the country of origin of scarce skills.

In more prosperous countries most people have sufficient to meet their basic human needs. Once this has been achieved, further consumption increases wellbeing only at a diminishing rate. There is evidence to show that when people see others enjoying things they can’t afford themselves it can make them unhappy, even if the things involved don’t directly add anything tangible to their wellbeing. In a very unequal society, especially where the super-rich are conspicuously affluent, people will aspire to an unsustainable “celebrity lifestyle”. This reduces happiness and increases the overall level of consumption when there simply are not the resources available for large numbers to live in such a manner.