Abstract In the HIV and AIDS sphere, children remain on the margins with respect to advocacy, prevention, treatment and care. Moreover, concern is generally limited to specific categories of children, most especially children living with HIV, orphaned children and child-headed households. Excluded from view are the very large numbers of children affected by generalized HIV/AIDS epidemics, now in advanced stages, in already impoverished countries in southern Africa. In this paper, we use information from comparable national household surveys in South Africa, in five waves between 1995 and 2005, to examine the impact of HIV and AIDS on children and on the structure of the households in which they find themselves. The question posed is whether it is appropriate to target orphans and child-headed households in this context. The data indicate that orphaning, particularly loss of a mother, tripled during this period, as is to be expected from rising adult mortality. Though they remain a small proportion, child-only households also rose markedly during this time. However, difficult as their situation is, neither orphans nor child-only households appear to be the worst-off children, at least from the point of view of reported sources of financial support and per capita monthly expenditure. Households headed by single adults and young adults are economically vulnerable groups not yet included in efforts to support affected children and families. Poverty is a pitiless backdrop to the AIDS epidemic and needs to be at the heart of strategies to address the needs of all vulnerable children in hard-hit communities.