Child Poverty in Iraq: An Analysis of Child Poverty Trends and Policy Recommendations for the National Poverty Reduction Strategy 2017-2021


Executive Summary

In 2012, a fourth of Iraq’s children lived in poverty, and we find that a third of all children in Iraq are unable to access all their basic child rights. Children have the highest risk of poverty across all age groups, and tend to live in households with lower incomes. Child poverty is a persistent issue in Iraq limiting the potential of a large portion of Iraq’s young population, curbing educational attainment, generating poor health outcomes, and preventing children from realizing their basic rights. Yet poor children and poor households are not the main beneficiaries of the range of social protection systems available to Iraqis. In order to come close to making Iraq a promising place for children again, there needs to be a significant focus on eradicating the specter of child poverty from vulnerable, poor and extremely poor children.

This report provides a comprehensive analysis of child poverty trends between 2007 and 2012, using data from the Iraq Household Socio-Economic Survey (IHSES) in those years. No other household survey for the measurement of poverty has been conducted in Iraq since this child poverty analysis was done in 2012/2013. We examine child poverty in Iraq by measuring the incidence, depth, severity, and risks of income poverty for children. We assess key determinants of child poverty to understand the interaction between expenditure (monetary or income poverty) and deprivation of child rights. The report also assesses the role of, and gap in, current social protection schemes in benefiting poor and vulnerable children.

Half of Iraq's 34,205,038 million people are children under the age of 18, and children comprised 3.7 million of Iraq’s 6.5 million poor people in 2012. While the total incidence of poverty had decreased from 22.9% in 2007 to 19% in 2012, nearly one in four children (23%) still live in poverty. Not only do children endure higher rates of poverty, but non-poor children also face a higher risk of falling into poverty. In 2012, children faced a 25% higher risk of poverty, on average, than other age groups in the population. At the same time, the percentage of children living in extreme poverty doubled to 1.2% of the poor, higher than the rates for adults and the elderly combined. More recent government estimates show that poverty in the general population in Iraq has increased to 23% and among internally displaced families to 38%.

We find that geography is a major determinant of child poverty in Iraq. Child poverty rates in rural areas is double that of urban areas; 34% of rural children are poor versus 17% of urban children. There are also large geographic discrepancies across governorates. For instance, the proportion of children living in poverty is less than 6% in the Kurdistan Region, but nearly 50% in the southern governorates of Muthanna, Qadissiya, Missan and Thi-Qar.

Our analysis provides a detailed profile of the poor child in Iraq. Rural children tend to be slightly poorer than their urban counterparts, and girls and boys face similar risk factors for poverty. Not surprisingly, parents who worked were less likely to have poor children, and there were high child poverty rates when the head of household is illiterate. Similarly, larger household sizes predicted higher levels of child poverty. While there are relatively low numbers of extreme poor children, the number is on the rise. Almost 8% of Iraqi children between six and 18 years participated in the labour force in 2012, with child labour a key predictor of life-long poverty.

For children, poverty cannot be understood solely in monetary terms, because children do not directly access income or spend it. Taking a more nuanced approach, we look at lack of access to children’s rights to health, education, water and sanitation, basic living standards, and protection. A third of all children in Iraq lack access to a child right guaranteed in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, while the number is much higher for certain groups of children. For instance, half of children aged 0-4 lack access to one or more children’s rights. We also find that about 30% of Iraqi children under the age of five suffer from food deprivation and one in three adolescents lack full access to education. Indeed, children from the poorest 10% of households—living on less than 2.5 USD per person per day—have disproportionately the highest probability of becoming stunted, dropping out of primary school, or becoming deprived of access to improved water, sanitation, and durable housing.

In 2012, one in ten Iraqis benefited from some sort of social protection scheme such as social safety net support to vulnerable groups (such as orphans, widows, divorced women and the disabled) and the state pension system. Yet, a major finding of this report is that only 12.5% of Iraq’s poor are reached by these social safety net cash transfers. This leaves 272,000 extremely poor people and 5.35 million poor people without assistance from social protection schemes. Moreover, the report finds that 82% of government expenditures on cash transfers is actually benefiting more affluent segments of the population. While social protection is usually considered an insurance policy against poverty and a tool for promoting inclusive development, in Iraq social protection is not achieving these purposes. These schemes now cost the government 5.26 trillion ID (4.7 billion USD) or 4.5% of the country’s total annual budget.

Similarly, the Public Distribution System (PDS), set up in 1990 to prevent a food crisis as a result of the war, provided basic food rations to 96% of the total population in 2012. While the PDS provides almost universal food ration distribution, nearly 80% of total government expenditure on this system benefits more affluent Iraqis and only one-fifth (20.5%) of total government expenditure on the PDS reaches the poor and extremely poor. The fact that 98% of children live in a household receiving food rations, yet one in four children under five years old is still stunted, brings the effectiveness of the system into question.

This evidence calls for the establishment of a targeted child grant. Firstly, children represent a growing majority of the poor in Iraq, yet the current cash transfer schemes fail to reach most poor children, leaving them unprotected and vulnerable to serious deprivations of their rights. Secondly, cash assistance has a direct impact on children’s developmental outcomes and on the reduction of their households’ economic vulnerability. Preventing child poverty and deprivation has important long-term socio-economic and societal benefits. Given that needs and vulnerabilities vary considerably between the extremely poor, the poor, and the vulnerable, progressive cash assistance is the most adequate and equitable mechanism to address children’s poverty and multiple deprivations.

Children represent a growing majority of the poor, face a higher risk of falling into poverty and of becoming deprived of their rights, and are increasingly left without social protection. Evidence-based policy recommendations call for the need to have a more child-responsive budgeting allocation; to strengthen evidence-based, decentralized planning and programming; to introduce a child grant within the existing social safety net that targets vulnerable, poor and extremely poor children with progressive benefits; and to establish a real-time monitoring mechanism that captures child poverty on its broader definition.

Children should be given the highest priority on the agenda of policymakers engaged in designing anti-poverty strategies. This priority cannot be overstressed considering that children not only represent the majority of the poor and face an increasing risk of poverty, but also because children experience age-specific vulnerabilities, which amplify the damaging effect of poverty and irreversibly affect their growth potential.