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Persistent poverty damages young children’s cognitive development, study finds

13 June 2012

The corrosive effect of persistent poverty on children’s cognitive development is revealed in a new study published by the Institute of Education, University of London.

Researchers found that seven-year-olds who have lived in poverty since infancy perform substantially worse in a range of ability tests than those who have never been poor – even when family circumstances and parenting skills are taken into consideration. On a scale from 0 to 100, a child who has been in persistent poverty will rank 10 levels below an otherwise similar child who has no early experience of poverty.

This is believed to be the first study to examine systematically the impact of persistent poverty on young children’s cognitive development in contemporary Britain. Its authors, Professor Andy Dickerson and Dr Gurleen Popli of the University of Sheffield, analysed data on almost 8,000 members of the Millennium Cohort Study, which follows the lives of children born in the UK in 2000-01.

The researchers looked at whether the children were in poverty at ages 9 months, 3 years, 5 years and 7 years. Children were said to be in persistent poverty if their families were poor at the current and all previous surveys. They then estimated the effect of poverty on the children’s scores on several cognitive assessments taken at ages 3, 5 and 7, which included vocabulary, pattern construction, picture recognition and reading.

The researchers found that poverty – especially persistent poverty – has a greater impact on cognitive development than factors such as whether or not parents read to their children, take them to the library, or help them with reading, writing and maths. The impact is equivalent to the gap in scores between the children of university-educated mothers and children of mothers with basic or no qualifications. The study also shows that being poor can adversely affect parents’ ability to take an active role in their children’s learning, which further affects their scores.

“Much is made of the importance of parenting for children’s cognitive development, and our study supports these claims,” the researchers say. “But importantly, our analysis shows that low income has a two-fold effect on children’s ability: it has an effect on children regardless of anything their parents do, but it also has an impact on parenting itself.”

Across early childhood, persistent poverty is worse for children’s cognitive development than intermittent poverty. For children who had been poor at only one point since birth, it was being born into poverty that had the most detrimental effects on cognitive development, whereas recent episodes of poverty had the least impact.

“This rigorous study of the impact of poverty on children’s cognitive development is a significant contribution to our understanding in this area,” says Professor Lucinda Platt, director of the Millennium Cohort Study. “In demonstrating the importance of early and enduring low income for children’s subsequent cognitive development, it provides fresh impetus to efforts to tackle child poverty.”

Persistent poverty and children’s cognitive development: Evidence from the UK Millennium Cohort Study is the latest working paper from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS), Institute of Education, University of London. See our publications library for more from the CLS working paper series.

Further information

Meghan Rainsberry
Institute of Education
University of London
m.rainsberry@ioe.ac.uk
020 7612 6530
075 3186 4481

David Budge
Institute of Education
University of London
d.budge@ioe.ac.uk
020 7911 5349
07881 415362

Notes for editors

  1. Seven-year-olds who were persistently poor were found to be on average 10 percentile rankings lower than those who had never been poor. Percentile rankings record on a scale of 0 to 100 where a child ranks among all those taking the test. For example, if a child ranks in the 90th percentile, that means 90 per cent of children ranked lower and the child is in the top 10 per cent.
  2. Poverty is defined as household income of less than 60 per cent of the median, adjusted for household size.
  3. In determining the specific effects of income poverty, researchers controlled for other variables known to impact on children’s cognitive development. These included background characteristics (including birth weight, ethnicity, mother’s education and housing tenure), parental investment (including how often the child is read to, taken to the library, and helped with reading, writing and maths) and parenting style (including whether the child has a regular bedtime, how much he/she watches TV and whether parents smack or shout at the child when he/she misbehaves).
  4. The Millennium Cohort Study has been tracking more than 19,000 children in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland through their early childhood and plans to follow them into adulthood. It covers such diverse topics as parenting; childcare; school choice; child behaviour and cognitive development; child and parental health; parents’ employment and education; income; housing; and neighbourhood. Surveys of the cohort have been carried out at the ages of nine months, and three, five and seven years. The Millennium Cohort Study was commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council, whose funding has been supplemented by a consortium of government departments. It is managed by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education, University of London. More at www.cls.ioe.ac.uk/mcs
  5. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2012-13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at www.esrc.ac.uk
  6. The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London that specialises in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the Institute’s research activity was judged to be internationally significant and over a third was judged to be “world leading”. The Institute was recognised by Ofsted in 2010 for its “high quality” initial teacher training programmes that inspire its students “to want to be outstanding teachers”. The IOE is a member of the 1994 Group, which brings together 15 internationally renowned, research-intensive universities. More at www.ioe.ac.uk