To belong or not belong in political discourse

by Stina Fernqvist

A while ago, an intense debate flared up between some of Sweden’s leading newspaper columnists. One of them started it all by questioning recurring statements about how children, in the wake of the ongoing inflation with increasing grocery costs as one of the outcomes, show up hungry to school after the weekends because underprivileged parents can´t afford to put enough food on the table. The columnist, also a well-known author, argued that even on a low budget it is perfectly possible – and even a parental responsibility – to prepare meals that are both cheap, nourishing, and filling. Therefore, according to the column, it is misleading to talk about these children’s predicament in terms of hunger per se [1]. The reactions were loud, upset, and immediate. The columnist was accused of stigmatizing poor parents as less knowledgeable and of displaying ‘stone cold moralism’ [2] by questioning if poor families in Sweden are really that poor, but also received some support from other columnists who saw many valid points in her arguments.

A picture of newspapers.
credit: pexels | brotin bis was

All in all, the debate boiled down to whether or not there are parents in Sweden who are so poor that they can’t afford to feed their children lentils and oatmeal, or if it in fact is an issue of parental inabilities in other respects. With a few exceptions, however[3], the arguments seldom addressed the fact that some Swedish kids, apparently, do not seem to get their basic needs fulfilled. We know from qualitative studies (see e.g. Ridge 2002; Fernqvist 2013) that children in poor households often take social responsibilities towards their parents and understate their needs in order to be less of a burden in financial terms, and it is therefore not unlikely that some children for this reason might eat less at home. An awareness of these kinds of strategies makes a discussion about how much a bag of rice costs and how long it lasts (which was also pedagogically presented to the readers in the column that started the debate) redundant as child poverty in welfare states is less a question of acute starvation and more about the complexities associated with being poor in a well-off context. This, and other nuances, was however rather absent in the recent debate, and now, a few weeks on, the issue seems to be off the agenda altogether.

Picture of two kids with one lunch box.
credit: pexels | katerina holmes

The issue of child poverty has, at times, received some attention in media and the political debate in Sweden during the last decades. Save the Children Sweden publishes a bi-annual report on the prevalence of the problem and we therefore know that around 196 000 Swedish children live in households that can be defined as poor (Salonen, 2021). Statistics from the Swedish Enforcement Agency show that the number of children who are evicted yearly is slowly increasing[4].  Nevertheless, discussions following e.g. Save the Children’s reports are often tainted with skepticism; is it possible to talk about poverty in a well-off country like Sweden? Isn’t it more a question of socioeconomic inequalities? Peer pressure in terms of consumption, where today’s children are spoiled rather than poor? As in the recent debate, it often seems to end up in a tug-of-war between morally laden opinions (often from opposite sides of the party-political spectrum) but poverty in general, and child poverty in particular, does not have a given place in media or political discourse. This may have something to do with a) that children’s everyday lives and the strategies they use to handle difficulties are less interesting on a whole, and b) a lack of consensus about how poverty in a welfare state in fact is experienced.

Picture from a boy overlooking a city and an ocean.
credit: pexels | yasin belge

Poverty has historically been classified as either absolute, where ”the minimum sum on which physical efficiency could be maintained” (Rowntree 1946:102), or relative, where affected individuals lack ” the resources to obtain the types of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or are at least widely encouraged or approved, in the societies in which they belong” (Townsend 1979: 31). Is it, then, possible to talk about poverty in an overall prosperous welfare state like Sweden, where children are unlikely to starve but rather run the risk of being excluded among their peers due to material and social inequalities? Should we instead discuss it in terms of the right to consumption, and how this right is linked to different preconditions? Based on this vagueness, is it even possible to talk about welfare state poverty as a social problem?

Picture of two kids' hands painting on a paper box.
credit: pexels | cottonbro

Knowledge about how poor families manage everyday life has been obtained from several studies over the past decades (e.g. Harju, 2008; Fernqvist, 2013; Hjorth, 2019; Andersson Bruck, 2020), providing evidence that suggests that this issue should be getting more political attention, even in countries like Sweden. In the public debate, however, child poverty and its impact on children’s material and social conditions seem to be of less relevance. For example, the issue was virtually non-existent in the political campaigns leading up to the general election in 2022. Related issues such as e.g. segregation, increasing gang violence, and housing problems are slightly more visible, but there seems to be a reluctance to address persisting problems such as financial inequalities and child poverty. In this process, I would argue that the experiences of children and families living in poverty in Sweden – and how poverty in the Swedish welfare state should be tackled more systematically – remain rather invisible in political discourse. The occasional heated debate between prominent columnists does not change this in any substantial way. 

credit: ann kravtsova

Author bio

Stina Fernqvist is an associate professor at the Department of Social Work at Uppsala University. Her research deals mainly with different aspects of economic hardship among children and families and institutional interactions in the context of the late modern welfare state. Stina holds a PhD in sociology.


Andersson Bruck, K. (2020). Child poverty in rich contexts: The example of Sweden. Global Studies of Childhood, 10(2), 95–105

Fernqvist, S. (2013). En erfarenhet rikare? [Rich in experience?] Uppsala: Uppsala university.

Harju, A. (2008). Barns vardag med knapp ekonomi. En studie om barns erfarenheter och strategier [Every day life with economic hardship. A study of children’s experiences and strategies]. Växjö: Växjö University Press

Hjort, T. (2019). Vad får en soffa kosta? [How much may a sofa cost?] In T. Hjort, K. Hollertz, H. Johansson, M. Knutagård, & R. Minas (Eds.), Det yttersta skyddsnätet [The last safety net] (pp. 153–178). Studentlitteratur

Ridge, T. (2002). Childhood poverty and social exclusion. From a child´s perspective. Bristol: The Policy Press B.

Rowntree, Seebohm (1946). Poverty and progress : a second social survey of York. London : Longmans, Green

Salonen, T. (2021). Barnfattigdom i Sverige: Årsrapport 2021. Stockholm: Rädda barnen [Save the children]

Townsend, P. (1979). Poverty in the United Kingdom : a survey of household resources and standards of living. Berkeley: University of California Press


[2] E.g. in a column by Johanna Frändén in the social democratic evening paper Aftonbladet:



Children’s engagement with and belonging to their environments.

by Asher Ben-Arieh

Recent years have brought focus to the importance of understanding context when approaching the topic of child wellbeing, with both theoretical and empirical evidence mounting to support this movement (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Coulton & Spilsbury, 2014). Whilst research has most typically investigated the contexts of family, school, and socioeconomic status when studying children (Goswami, 2012; Lee & Yoo, 2015; Gross-Manos & Massarwi, 2022), this contribution, premised on children’s rights and their participatory perspective, emphasizes the importance of also exploring the environment and nature as contexts which shape children’s lives.

Children playing on a swing in nature.
credit: pexels | rodnae productions

Defining the meanings of ‘environment’ and ‘nature’ is not an easy task, in fact, it is often a problematic one, as people may experience and understand the same surroundings in broad and varied ways. Classically, nature is the term used to refer to an outdoor space, separated from humans. However, the environment refers to the connection which people have to a place, including the meanings, values, and interactions they associate with a physical space (Spiteri et al., 2022). Highlighting and examining the role of the environment and nature in children’s lives will help elevate current understandings of the importance of context for children.

A child climbing on a tree.
credit: pexels | allan mas

A key environment to consider in a child’s life is their neighborhood. Neighborhoods usually refer to urban areas, villages, or villages in rural areas, and these areas are not simply geographical territories, they are units of social organization that symbolize meaning to people as places to live, work and perform their daily tasks. The neighborhoods in which children reside are a space in which they are likely to spend a great amount of time in, so they represent important contexts in their lives (Allison et al., 1999). Research has shown that neighborhoods and their characteristics can influence children’s well-being (Rees, 2017).

Children playing in a field.
credit: pexels | quang nguyen vinh

Within their environment, children must feel free to play and experiment, feel secure to succeed or fail at tasks, and push themselves. For children, such activities are a part of their process of socialization, which is crucial to their development and well-being. Specifically, recent studies have shown that the natural environment of a child, a place in which they may engage with various components and explore, has a great contribution to their well-being. Furthermore, research has indicated that active engagement by children with their environment is associated with various developmental benefits, like igniting a sense of independence and autonomy, and providing a range of other physical, cognitive, and affective benefits (Adams & Savahl, 2017).

A child drawing with charcoal on a street.
credit: pexels | allan mas

Another important environment in a child’s life is the climate in which they live. Thinking on a bigger scale, there is growing evidence that humans are negatively impacting climate change, and this may hold negative repercussions on the well-being of children. As climate change worsens, it is more likely that children of future generations will be most heavily impacted by these changes. Moreover, growing media coverage of the negative consequences relating to global climate change has caused growing eco-anxiety among children and youth. Eco-anxiety, also known as climate distress or climate anxiety, is the anxiety one may experience relating to the global climate crisis and the impending threat of environmental disaster, causing symptoms like panic attacks, insomnia, and obsessive thinking (Cianconi et al., 2020), and this is harmful to children.  Also, the wish to protect nature and climate also leads to a growing number of children and young people all over the world being involved in demonstrations and different actions.

Young people holding signs saying "our planet our future" and "there is no planet B".
credit: karolina gabowska

In summary, considering the importance of nature and the environment as influential contexts in children’s lives these contexts must be recognized as an issue relating to children’s rights. Also, bearing in mind that children are the experts of their lives, it is imperative to talk to and learn from them directly regarding the importance of these contexts for them. Lastly, it is clear that we must recognize the efforts of children in dealing with the issue of climate change and appreciate their importance in this fight.

A child playing in a field.
credit: pexels | miriam salgado

Asher Ben-Arieh, is the Haruv Chair for the study of Child Maltreatment at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a Prof. of Social Work and the Dean of the Paul Baerwald School of Social Work and Social Welfare as of September 2021. Asher is also the director of the Haruv Institute in Jerusalem. He served for 20 years as the associate director of Israel’s National Council for the Child.

A boy holding a sign saying "There's no planet B"
credit: pexels | anna shvets


Adams, S., & Savahl, S. (2017). Nature as children’s space: A systematic review. The Journal of Environmental Education, 48(5), 291-321.‏

Allison, K. W., Crawford, I., Leone, P. E., Trickett, E., Perez-Febles, A., Burton, L. M., & Le Blanc, R. (1999). Adolescent substance use: Preliminary examinations of school and neighborhood context. American journal of community psychology, 27(2), 111-141.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Harvard University Press.

Cianconi, P., Betrò, S., & Janiri, L. (2020). The impact of climate change on mental health: a systematic descriptive review. Frontiers in psychiatry, 74.

Coulton, C. J., & Spilsbury, J. C. (2014). Community and Place-Based Understanding of Child Well-Being. In Handbook of Child Well-Being (pp. 1307–1334). Springer Netherlands.

Gross-Manos, D., & Massarwi, A. A. (2022). Material deprivation and subjective poverty association with subjective well-being reported by children: Religiosity as a protective factor. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.‏

Goswami, H. (2012). Social Relationships and Children’s Subjective Weil-Being. Social Indicators Research, 107(3), 575–588.

Lee, B.J., Yoo, M.S. Family, School, and Community Correlates of Children’s     Subjective Well-being: An International Comparative Study. Child Ind Res 8, 151–175 (2015).

Rees, G. (2017). Children’s Views on Their Lives and Well-being. Springer Cham. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-65196-5

Spiteri, J., Higgins, P., & Nicol, R. (2022). It’s like a Fruit on a Tree: Young Maltese Children’s Understanding of the Environment. Early Child Development and Care, 192(7), 1133-1149.

Untangling the complex relationship between poverty and belonging using Ungdata Junior

Christer Hyggen, Mette Løvgren

A significant number of Norwegian children are growing up in families at risk of poverty. The number has been on the rise for the last two decades. As we speak about 12 percent of all Norwegian children grow up in households at risk of poverty. While poverty in Norway does not compare to poverty in other parts of the world, relative poverty within an affluent society may leave the affected at a disadvantage.

credit: pexels – laís regina

The risk of poverty is not evenly distributed. Children who grow up in households where the main providers are single parents have low education and weak connections to the labor market are at greater risk than others. And the risk is particularly high for children with immigrant backgrounds. The risk of growing up in a poor household is higher in cities  – and often in particular parts of the larger cities.

Growing up in families at risk of poverty may have adverse consequences for the child, in both the short and the long term. A large body of research from the last two decades on growing up in relative poverty in an affluent country has identified a range of potential consequences of lack of economic resources on the child, for the family, and at an institutional/ societal level. It may affect a child’s development, health, quality of life, parental support, participation, trust, and sense of belonging to mention just a few.

Figure 1. A descriptive model for understanding dimensions of Belonging in relation to poverty

This figure is a very simplified attempt at capturing and systemizing some of the complexity. We have developed this model, based on the influential work by Bronfenbrenner, in order to visualize how the lives of economically disadvantaged children need to take into account a wide range of arenas, actors, and institutions surrounding, affecting, and interacting with the children.

In BELONG, we will challenge usual preconceptions of the phenomenon by using the concept of belonging – moving beyond traditional concepts of social integration/ marginalization and participation – or maybe even bullying – concepts that we in the youth research department are more familiar with. In short, we will apply the lens provided by the complex concept of belonging addressing children’s experiences and connections and overlapping dimensions – people, places, and materials – and their sub-dimensions – such as peers, parents, schools.

One of the tools and empirical basis we will use in BELONG is Ungdata and Ungdata junior.

credit: pexels – katherina holmes

For more than a decade, Ungdata has been the most comprehensive source of information on adolescent health and well-being at the municipal, regional and national levels in Norway. Presently close to 800 000 youth from nearly all Norwegian municipalities have participated in Ungdata and Ungdata junior. The age range is from 10 years till 18 or 19 years – from 5th grade in compulsory school to 3d and final year of high school.

The data cover various aspects of young people’s lives, like relationships with parents and friends, leisure activities, health issues, local environment, well-being, and school issues.

credit: pexels – monstera

NOVA – Norwegian social research at OsloMet, is responsible for the national coordination of the project, while a large infrastructure based locally in municipalities and at schools secures the implementation. Ungdata will provide an important empirical contribution to the BELONG project and help us towards our goal of an increased understanding of practices causing marginalization and social exclusion of minority and majority children of low-income families.

In particular, we believe Ungdata will be able to contextualize, generalize and explore the importance of relative differences in poverty for practices of belonging.