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Household income directly affects children’s development, research shows

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: (Published 22 October 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f6410
  1. Jacqui Wise
  1. 1London

Children in low income households have worse cognitive, sociobehavioural, and health outcomes, concludes a new report by the social policy research charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.1

The report says that money makes a direct difference to children’s outcomes and not just because low income is correlated with parents’ level of education, attitudes towards bringing up children, and other parental factors.

Kerris Cooper and Kitty Stewart from the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics and Political Science used systematic review techniques to identify 34 relevant, high quality studies. Most of the studies were from the United States, with some from the United Kingdom, Canada, Norway, and Mexico.

The authors concluded that low income affects direct measures of children’s wellbeing and development, including their cognitive ability, achievement and engagement in school, anxiety levels, and behaviour. The evidence on cognitive development and school achievement was the clearest and most common, followed by evidence on social and behavioural development. Evidence about the effects of income on children’s physical health was more mixed. Income was found to affect maternal mental health, parenting, and the home environment, which indirectly affect children.

The report says that a given sum of money makes significantly more difference to children in low income households than to those in better-off households, although it still helps better-off children. Money in early childhood makes most difference to cognitive outcomes, while in later childhood and adolescence it makes more difference to social and behavioural outcomes. Longer term poverty affects children’s outcomes more severely than short term poverty.

The researchers wrote, “Part of the [UK] government’s deficit reduction strategy is to reduce welfare budgets in order to limit spending cuts to essential public services, including education, with a view to protecting children’s life chances. However well intentioned, the evidence from this review suggests that such a strategy is likely to be self-defeating, especially in a context of high unemployment.”

Instead, they said, protecting households from income poverty should be a central part of government efforts to promote children’s opportunities and life chances.


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f6410


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