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Time to think of combating poverty after 2020

By Li Yang | China Daily | Updated: 2018-01-12 07:40

Clad in worn-out clothes, his hair covered with frost and his face blue with cold, a boy stands before his classmates who are making fun of his "white hat". He is a picture of embarrassment.

The photograph taken by a teacher on Monday morning at a rural primary school in Zhaotong, Southwest China's Yunnan province, has pained many of those who have seen it on the internet.

As the 2020 deadline for eliminating abject poverty from rural areas draws close, the problems exposed by the photo and the story behind it should prompt the authorities to plan poverty alleviation measures beyond 2020.

The boy, whose parents work as migrant workers in cities, lives with his grandparents in a mountain hamlet 4.5 kilometers from the school. He reached the school half an hour after classes began because of the biting cold and the mountain paths made more treacherous by the frost.

The Zhaotong government opened an account after the photo went viral online to collect donations from the people to provide assistance to the boy and his classmates, most of whose lives are similar, but it has not made it clear whether the children's families live below the national poverty line, that is, earn less than $1.26 per person per day.

Since a majority of the migrant workers constantly wire money back home from cities, their families might not be described as impoverished. But that does not mean they don't have to struggle to make ends meet.

Most of the students in that school don't have enough winter clothes, let alone gloves and caps, to cope with the winter cold. In fact, many of them show signs of frostbite on their faces and ears-and perhaps even on the hands and feet. Making maters worse is the lack of heating in the classrooms.

The school headmaster said many students, including the boy in the photo, normally don't have breakfast at home before taking the arduous journey through the mountains every morning to the school, and the student whose house is farthest away from the school needs three hours to cover the distance on foot.

Although they may not suffer from hunger, malnutrition is a new form of poverty in rural areas, just as overweight and obesity are signs of opulence in cities. The Zhaotong school gives the students a piece of bread or some biscuits each for breakfast, and a simple "3-yuan ($0.46) nutrition lunch". The local government funds the breakfast expenses, and the central government the lunch, which started in 2011 and covers primary and junior middle schools in China's countryside. And lunch is said to be the principal meal for the children, who usually keep part of it to eat in the afternoon so as to have enough energy to walk back home.

In addition, the public health authorities began providing nutrient supplements for the needy children aged below 2 in 100 poverty-stricken counties from 2012. But despite that, the weight and height gap is high between rural and urban children, and very high between impoverished rural children and their urban counterparts, says the National Health and Family Planning Commission.

The children aged between 3 and 5 years old in poor regions basically don't get any government-funded nutrient assistance, and studies show potato and soybean remain their main source of energy and protein.

Malnutrition in childhood can cause irrevocable health damage to humans, stunting their development and growth, which could become a huge problem for the country given that the rural population still accounts for about half of the national total.

So the poverty alleviation authorities, especially when they devise a post-2020 program, should look beyond the personal income criterion to determine how exactly poverty harms children-for instance, they should focus on how to ensure fair distribution of resources and facilitate the healthy development of children, and create channels for the upward mobility of the rural poor.

The author is a writer with China Daily.

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