Families and Relational Poverty – Summary

Family and poverty: this is the focus on which the Family International Monitor, set up by Cisf, Istituto John Paul II and Ucam, has concentrated its attention in its first three years of activity, dividing the survey into two strands and examining first relational poverty and then economic-structural poverty.

“The intertwining of these two elements is a priority at the global level – explains Francesco Belletti, scientific director of the Family Monitor – as can also be seen by analyzing the 17 Objectives of Sustainable Development – Agenda 2030 of the United Nations”.

“The work of the Family International Monitor – Belletti continues – intends to highlight the role that family relationships play in qualifying the condition of poverty of people and in promoting their resilience to difficult conditions, also paying particular attention to the systems of extended relationships around families, as well as the more macro-social dynamics such as social ties of community or neighborhood, social cohesion and solidarity of short relationships”.

Family poverty depends on a complex system of interactions, in which the challenges and opportunities generated by the economic system confront the resources, projects and fragilities of relational systems in an encounter that is significantly conditioned and oriented by the influence of the cultural and value system composed of mass media, traditions and values, socially approved norms and behavior, but also by public interventions such as welfare and redistributive policies.

The survey used 90 indicators grouped into eight different thematic areas that could provide a homogeneous statistical reference for each country, using the World Bank and United Nations as priority sources.

In each of the countries, a research center was also identified, which drew up a Country Report on the basis of a questionnaire, taking into account four aspects in particular: the family as an economic actor, as an educational subject, as a subject of care and reciprocity and as a subject of active citizenship.

The local research partners used official sources of national documentation, thematic or territorial in-depth research sources, and interviews.

From the survey some common problems emerge throughout the world, such as the difficult reconciliation of family and work (not only for women), or the impact of communication technologies on family relationships, or the growing socio-economic inequality within individual countries, perhaps even more serious than the inequality between countries.

In this context, family relationships make a difference, and their resistance or fragility generate very different outcomes. In particular, the data emerged with great clarity for families that are particularly vulnerable from the socio-economic point of view: here the strength of family relationships is a decisive factor in preventing them from falling below the poverty line.

From the survey, the strength of family relationships shows a significant correlation with the institutional dimension of marriage and the family; in other words, families with high levels of legal recognition present greater indicators of resilience, family quality and well-being.

The data highlight the strong correlation between the strength of the couple’s relationship and overall family well-being. The couple is thus the primary resource of family quality, especially in conditions of serious socio-economic vulnerability.

The survey data indicate that some family forms are structurally more fragile than others: among others, single-parent families, families with one or two teenage parents, and large families stand out. In some cases, these vulnerabilities could be better supported by targeted welfare interventions.

Finally, the report reveals the great importance of extended relational networks, a fact that suggests that we should go beyond the consideration of the “nuclear family” as the sole defining framework. In particular, in the various contexts analyzed, intergenerational relations and the presence of significant non-parental relational networks such as neighbors, friendship, associations and solidarity are central.

On the opposite side, there emerges the presence of internal dynamics of strong inequality between the strongest members to the detriment of the weakest, generally in favor of adult males, to the detriment of women, minors and the elderly. This dynamic tends to be correlated with low levels of culture and social marginality. These dynamics of redistributive inequity can be contained and countered by redistributive public policies, such as, for example, legal protection of women in marriage and minors in the family.

On the other hand, at times the same public policies construct unintentional mechanisms of unequal distribution of resources, for example with intergenerational policies that penalize the new generations in favor of adults and the elderly.

With respect to individual internal fragilities, three specific areas of attention have emerged with particular clarity: the event of birth, still fraught with life-threatening risks (for mothers and newborns) in many countries, often exposed to the abandonment of the child, and poorly protected; the condition of young people, strongly penalized in almost all the countries considered; and family violence, an undercurrent but widespread and reported phenomenon in all territorial contexts and not only in the socially more deprived classes.

The survey clearly shows the need for public policies to act more effectively to counteract the strong conditions of socio-economic inequality, which have been growing over the last twenty years in practically all the national contexts analyzed.


The size of families constitutes both an objective relational resource and a potential factor of vulnerabilità (Table 1). In turn, the small size of families in Italy and Spain confirm a negative demographic trend, linked above all to the aging of the population and the collapse of the birth rate. The presence of high percentages of minors under 15 years of age is also an ambivalent element, highlighting very high care and educational loads and responsibilities, as well as the demographic dynamism of the population.

In Africa, we have an average number of family members ranging from 5.2 in Benin to 3.4 in South Africa, a population under the age of 15 ranging from 42.4% to 28.1% and a fertility rate between 4.9 and 2.4. In the Americas, with the exception of Haiti (4.3 average members per family), it ranges from 3.3 in Brazil (where the population under 15 years of age reaches 47.2%) to 3.7 in Mexico. The percentage of young people is lowest in Chile (20.4%) while the fertility rate ranges from 1.6 in Chile to 2.2 in Mexico.

In Asia, the largest families are in India (4.8 components and 2.2 fertility rate, 27% children), the smallest in Lebanon (3.8 components, with 26.1% youth population and 2.1 fertility rate), while Qatar has 4.7 components per family, but only 13.5% youth population and 1.9 fertility rate.

In Europe, on the other hand, there are no substantial differences between Italy and Spain with just over 2 members per family, 13-14% under the age of fifteen on the total population and a fertility rate of 1.3.

As far as vulnerability is concerned, the data confirm that mono-parenting is a well-established and not marginal phenomenon (around 10% of total households, except in India), and that it is prevalently linked to single mothers. Far more effective, as an indicator of vulnerability, is the presence of teenage maternity, which in many of the countries considered exceeds 5% of cases (in Benin, there are 78 cases of pregnancy per thousand teenage girls). These cases are signs of the double vulnerability that affects the subjects both as minors and as women. A final element of vulnerability, this time of an external nature, but closely connected to the previous one, refers to the presence of strong socio-economic inequalities in society, which generally penalize some types of families and value others. In this, the quality of work and the role of women are discriminating elements: dual-income families are generally more protected from poverty.  

Table 1. Demographic structures  

Continent Country Average number of family members Population under 15 years (%) Fertility rate


BENIN 5.2 42.4 4.9
KENYA 3.6 39.8 3.6
SOUTH AFRICA 3.4 28.1 2.4
AMERICAS BRAZIL 3.3 47.2 1.7
CHILE 3.6 20.4 1.6
HAITI 4.3 33.2 3.0
MEXICO 3.7 26.6 2.2
ASIA INDIA 4.8 27.1 2.2
LEBANON 3.8 26.1 2.1
QATAR 4.7 13.5 1.9
EUROPA ITALY 2.3 13.3 1.3
SPAIN 2.5 14.7 1.3

Table 2. Family Vulnerabilities  

Continent Country Single parents


Single parent female head of household (%) Maternity of adolescents

(per 1,000)



BENIN 10.7 8.3 78.1
KENYA 14.9 13.1 75.1
SOUTH AFRICA 11.5 10.5 67.9
AMERICAS BRAZIL 10.5 9.1 59.1
CHILE 12.7 10.8 41.0
HAITI 12.7 10.3 51.7
MEXICO 10.2 8.8 60.4
ASIA INDIA 6.2 5.3 12.1
EUROPE ITALY 9.4 7.8 5.2
SPAIN 9.6 7.9 7.7

Table 3. Economical indicators 

Continent Country Gini Index


Average income per capita ($) Persons in poverty with per capita income of less than $5.5 per day

(2011 PPP) (% pop.)



BENIN 0.48 2,410 59.2
KENYA 0.41 3,440 86.5
SOUTH AFRICA 0.63 13,250 29.2
AMERICAS BRAZIL 0.57 15,850 8.1
CHILE 0.44 14,670 1.0
HAITI 0.41 1,880 39.2
MEXICO 0.46 19,340 7.0
ASIA INDIA 0.38 6,580 31.3
LEBANON 0.32 13,010 0.3
QATAR NA 124,410 NA
EUROPE ITALY 0.36 42,290 1.8
SPAIN 0.35 39,800 1.1