The impact of poverty on early childhood

Author: Carey Oppenheim, Project Lead - Nuffield Foundation
A young sad child
A young sad child

For most parents, bringing a baby into the world and nurturing a young child brings both great joy and intense love, but it also comes with many changes, and sometimes stress, pressure and anxiety. Those pressures and stresses are likely to be much greater for families who are struggling to make ends meet.  In the UK today, more than one in four families with a child under five are living in poverty.  

Experiencing poverty can cause harm at any age, but particularly for the youngest children. This is when the foundations for their physical, emotional and social development are being laid. A substantial body of research shows that family poverty is associated with and can cause poorer academic attainment and social and emotional development. Perhaps not surprisingly, poverty can be highly detrimental if it is persistent, experienced in the first three years of life and combined with other disadvantages. Given this, addressing early childhood poverty is a vital part of the jigsaw of support needed to enable young children to flourish.

The harm that poverty can inflict begins during pregnancy and is shaped by the health and well-being of parents and their socio-economic status. Gaps in development between disadvantaged and advantaged children emerge very early on. Poverty impacts are also not the same for everyone and are further compounded by inequalities in relation to parents’ ethnicity, health and economic status. By the time a child reaches 11 months there are gaps in communication and language skills, and by the age of three inequalities in children’s cognitive and social and emotional skills are evident. A large body of analysis shows how these early disadvantages can go on to affect children’s development in later life.

Importantly, this is not to say that economic disadvantage inevitably leads to poor long-term outcomes; other factors – family circumstances, wider family support, social networks and connections, educational resources and public services - all play a vital role and can mitigate the effects of poverty.

Younger children are more likely to be in poverty than other groups 

Poverty here is defined as not having enough material resources such as money, housing, or food to meet the minimum needs - both material and social – in today’s society. While there have been some key changes over the last two decades, there is one constant – children are markedly more likely to experience poverty than adults or pensioners and it is younger children who are most at risk.

This is the result of a combination of factors including the costs of children and that households with younger children are less likely to have two parents in full-time work parents. The latest figures show that there are some 4.2 million children living in poverty in the UK, a rise of 600,000 over the last decade.

Most worryingly deep poverty has been rising, particularly affecting lone parents, large families, and people living in families with a disabled person. The Runnymede Trust found that Black and minority ethnic people are currently 2.2 times more likely to be in deep poverty than white people, with Bangladeshi people more than three times more likely.  The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s report on Destitution in the UK 2023found that over 1 million children had experienced destitution at some point over 2022.

Poverty affects children’s material, social, educational and emotional well-being

Poverty affects young children’s experiences directly. Parents have less money to meet children’s material and social needs. The sharply rising costs of providing the basic essentials – food, warmth, lighting, housing costs, nappies, baby food, clothing - has created acute pressure for many families. Drawing on a survey of their service users, in 2022 Barnardo’s reported that 30% of parents said their child’s mental health had worsened in the previous four months, 16% said their child/ren had to share a bed with them or a sibling, and 30% were concerned about losing their home/being made homeless.

Recent research (Ruth Patrick et al. 2023) looked at the effects of benefit changes on larger families. It shows the many hardships that families are dealing with, the inability to meet their children’s needs and the stress and worry they feel as a result. But it also shows the resilience, strength and skills they employ to give their children the best possible life in the circumstances. Families spoke about the sheer amount of time it takes to manage on a very tight budget and its direct impact on children – from missing bath time to reading a bedtime story. This is affecting children’s educational outcomes. 95% of teachers surveyed by Kindred Squared believe that the cost-of-living crisis is going to impact school readiness next year.

Poverty gets under your skin; it takes a toll on the mental health of mothers, fathers, and wider family. The Family Stress Model, underpinned by research, shows the way in which economic stress - poverty, hardship, debt - creates psychological distress, lack of control and feelings of stigma. Not surprisingly, these stresses affect family relationships, both between parents and with children. Hardship, debt, deprivation and ‘feeling poor’ is linked to poorer maternal mental health and lower life satisfaction and this can make it more difficult to find the mental space to be an attentive and responsive parent. This in turn can affect young children’s social and emotional development and outcomes.

What can we do?

Explaining how poverty affects young children’s well-being and outcomes is important when it comes to developing effective responses: addressing poverty and hardship directly, supporting parents’, especially mothers’, mental health, and providing support for parenting.

The research also helps identify the protective factors that help to reduce the detrimental impact of poverty: wider family and neighbourhood support, good maternal and paternal mental health, access to high quality early education, warm parent-child interaction and financial and housing stability.

Early years professionals, health visitors, family support workers and many others are in the front line of the difficulties that families with young children are facing. They are responding to the legacy of the Covid pandemic and the rise in cost of living, working across service boundaries and in new ways, despite budgetary pressures.

Local services are working to meet the needs of families with young children in the round – including support for maternal mental health, parental conflict, parenting and the home learning environment. There are many voluntary initiatives, such as Save the Children’s Building Blocks, which combines giving grants to reduce the impact of material deprivation with supporting parents to play and learn with their children at home, initiatives to use local authority data to increase the take-up of benefit entitlements, and thebaby bank network, providing essential products and equipment as well as practical support for parents who are struggling.

Tackling early childhood poverty rests both on public policy which takes a holistic and joined up approach, as well as action at local level, whether that’s through local authorities, early years services in health and education, local businesses and community and voluntary initiatives.

In the Nuffield Foundation’s Changing Face of Early Childhood, we set out some core principles to address early childhood poverty including:

  • A multi-dimensional approach that reflects the range of socioeconomic risks and intersecting needs faced by families with young children.

  • Money matters - a financial bedrock for families with young children living on a low income, through improved social security benefits and access to employment, which takes account of the care needs of the under-fives.

  • Greater attention and investment in policies to support parental mental health and parenting from the earliest stage of a child’s life.

A more coherent, joined up and effective approach to early childhood would help to address the inequalities between children by supporting them early on in life and establishing deep roots from which they can grow and flourish.