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. It will be available on the CLS website (www.cls.ioe.ac.uk) from 9:00am on Wednesday 13 June 2012.