Understanding the impact of poverty in childhood

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 3.7 million of children in the UK experience poverty, with 1.7 million experiencing severe poverty. 63% of these children are from working families – in other words, they are living with poverty despite their parents being in work. The rise of in work poverty as a consequence of austerity cuts is a growing problem, and the increasing precarity that families experience as a consequence of the general pattern of reduction in support for families who are struggling financially represents a significant threat to children’s wellbeing, and to their long term health, social and educational outcomes. Inequalities are a consistent factor making it harder for children and young people to thrive in our society, and poverty represents a significant risk to children’s healthy development.

Experiencing poverty in childhood increases the risk that a child will also be exposed to a range of other difficulties that challenge healthy child development. These include exposure to poor housing, unsafe neighbourhoods, inadequate schooling, nutritional challenges, and exposure to other adverse childhood experiences.

A recent European cross-sectional study used the EU Income Social Inclusion and Living Conditions Database (n=203000) and WHO Mortality Database (children 1-14 years), to examine the links between housing conditions, income inequality and child mortality (Sengoelge et al, 2014), and established that there was a strong correlation between low income, poor quality housing and child mortality rates. This finding stresses the importance of good housing for child safety, but it is important also to recognise the importance of home for psychological wellbeing for children – having a place where you belong, a space in which you feel bounded and contained is a central part of learning to feel safe and nurtured.  Precarity challenges this sense of belonging, by creating uncertainty about housing and stress about meeting household bills.

Food poverty is an increasing social problem, both in the UK and globally. The 2017 Scottish Health Survey Government reported that children in areas with multiple deprivation are much more likely to experience food insecurity, and that 1 in 10 people in deprived areas in Scotland ran out of food before the end of the month, with younger adults (and by extension, those with children) hit hardest.  Food poverty can also impact on children’s development and wellbeing, through direct and indirect mechanisms.  For example, hunger has an impact on concentration (Armstrong 2010), and food poverty is associated with reduced physical growth, iodine deficiency, and iron-deficiency anaemia all of which can impact neurological development (Walker et al, 2012). Food insecurity is linked to chronic illness, nutritional deficiencies, obesity, general poor health (Mistry and Wadswoth, 2011).

Another potential mechanism that might negatively impact children’s development is play deprivation. Children growing up in neighbourhoods affected by poverty may find it difficult to find safe spaces to play, lack of household space (gardens and indoor play space) can aggravate this, and in addition, parents who are working long hours to make ends meet might find it difficult to play with their children as much as they might wish. Given the importance of play for development, particularly in early childhood, it is clear that lack of physical and time resources present a further challenge for families.

Finally, it is important to recognise that the job of parenting is emotional labour. Parenting in circumstances of significant financial strain is challenging.  One of the strongest predictors of parenting difficulty is living with poverty. Parenting stress and compromised caregiving are linked to unstable working conditions, underemployment and income poverty, which puts a strain on wider family relationships (Yoshikawa et al., 2012; Hsueh and Yoshikawa, 2007).

Whilst it is important not to see severe financial strain as determining health and developmental outcomes, nonetheless it is clear that the kinds of experiences associated with poverty and precarity produce a risk to children’s attainment and wellbeing. It is therefore profoundly concerning that discourses that stigmatise poverty are so prevalent. Public talk that describes those who experience as poverty as ‘skivers’ or ‘benefits cheats’ produce a sense of shame and guilt about needing support. This kind of talk makes it even harder for parents to reach out for support that they need when they are in financial difficulty, and act as a barrier to the use of services and resources that are desperately needed.

This week is Challenge Poverty Week.  Please use this week to raise awareness of the real story about poverty.  Challenge stigmatising talk and actions.  Speak back to policy makers who push for more and more service cuts, whilst families continue to struggle.  If you are committed to the best possible outcomes for all children, challenging poverty has to be a central tenet of your work and practice.  Poverty is an adverse childhood experience, and must be at the heart of our attempts to make childhood better for all.

https://www.challengepoverty.net/ #challengepovertyweek.

(Written by Jane Callaghan jane.callaghan@stir.ac.uk) 


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