Persistent poverty affects nearly one in five children in the U.K. and is projected to increase over the next five years, according to a new study from the University of Liverpool and University College London.
The findings are published online in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.
Long-term poverty is associated with poorer mental, social, and behavioral development in children, as well as worse educational outcomes, employment prospects, and earning power into adulthood.
The researchers warn that the poverty-related effects on children’s mental health “is likely to have profound implications for social policies and their associated social costs, given mental health tracks from early life to adulthood.”
“As a child health doctor, it is baffling to me that we let an exposure as toxic as child poverty wash over such a large proportion of the children in this country. Our analysis shows that urgent action is needed to reduce child poverty if we want to secure healthy futures for kids in the UK,” said Professor David Taylor-Robinson, University of Liverpool’s Department of Public Health and Policy.
In 2016-17, 30% (4.1 million) children were reported to be living in poverty, up from 27% in 2010-11, and the proportion is projected to rise further over the next five years. By 2023-24, the proportion of children living in relative poverty is on course to hit 37%, affecting an extra 1.1 million children.
What’s less clear is whether specific patterns of exposure to poverty have varying effects on adolescent physical and mental health. To investigate this further, the researchers analyzed data on 10,652 children from the UK Millennium Cohort Study, a large nationally representative sample of babies born between 2000 and 2002 who have been followed throughout childhood.
Poverty (defined as less than 60% of average household income) was measured at 9 months, and at 3, 5, 7, 11 and 14 years of age.
The findings show that nearly one in five (19.4%) children experienced persistent poverty across all time points, whereas more than 60% (62.4%) of children never did. A further 13.4% of children experienced poverty in early childhood (between 9 months and 7 years), while the remaining 5% experienced it in late childhood (11 to 14 years).
After adjusting for mother’s education and ethnicity, the researchers found that compared with children who never experienced poverty, any period of poverty was linked to worse physical and mental health in early adolescence.
In particular, children living in persistent poverty were three times more likely to have mental illness, 1.5 times more likely to be obese, and nearly twice as likely to have a long-term illness, compared to children who had never been poor.
Poverty in early childhood, as opposed to late childhood, was linked to a greater risk of obesity in adolescence, while mental ill health and longstanding illness were more strongly associated with poverty in late childhood.
Although this is an observational study and does not establish causality, other evidence suggests that poverty does indeed have a causal effect, leading to many aspects of poor child health. Furthermore, some measures were based on parents’ self-report, so may not have been completely accurate, while missing data may also have affected the results, say the researchers.
But they point out that this is a large, nationally representative study rich in data on family characteristics, and it is consistent with the results of other similar studies.
Source: University of Liverpool