Childhood poverty associated with higher risk of material deprivation and income poverty in Irish adults

Individuals who experienced childhood poverty are much more likely to experience income poverty and material deprivation in adulthood. A new study funded by Pobal and carried out by the ESRI finds that in 2019, the likelihood of deprivation in adulthood was 35 percentage points higher among individuals who grew up in poverty when compared to individuals who grew up in ‘very good’ financial circumstances.

The report draws data from the Irish and EU Survey on Income and Living Conditions at three time points – 2005, 2011, and 2019, which asked respondents aged 25-59 years about their household’s financial situation when they were in their early teens. The report examines how poverty persists from one generation to the next in Ireland and other EU countries. Key findings from this analysis demonstrate that:

  • The influence of childhood poverty on adult deprivation declines with age; it is most pronounced for younger adults and weaker but still significant for older adults aged 55-59 years.
  • Educational attainment is central to the intergenerational transmission of poverty. Those who grow up in poverty attain lower levels of education and this accounts for over a quarter of the association between childhood poverty and deprivation in adulthood.
  • Tackling educational inequality from early childhood education to higher education is therefore crucial for preventing the intergenerational transmission of poverty.
  • Lower rates of employment and the presence of disability or ill health among those who experienced childhood poverty, was also part of the reason for the increased risk of deprivation in adulthood.

Ireland in the European Context

  • In 2011 and 2019 the proportion of Irish respondents that experienced poverty during childhood was the same as the EU-27 average: In 2011 and 2019 the proportion of Irish respondents that experienced poverty during childhood was the same as the EU-27 average: 13% in 2011, and 9% in 2019.
  • In 2011, the proportion of individuals within the EU-27 who experienced childhood poverty and went on to experience deprivation in adulthood was 33% while in Ireland it was 37%. In 2019, this had decreased to 25% in the EU-27 average and to 31% in Ireland.
  • Comparing the rates of deprivation in 2019 between people who experienced good financial circumstances and bad financial circumstances during childhood, Ireland had the 8th highest level of inequality among the EU-27 countries, up from 16th place in 2011.
  • People who experienced childhood poverty are less likely to achieve third level education than those who grew up in advantaged circumstances. In 2019, across the EU-27, 19% of those who experienced childhood poverty attained third level education in adulthood, while it was 44% among those who grew up in advantaged financial circumstances. The respective figures for Ireland were 39% and 71%. Ireland has one of the lowest levels of inequality among the EU-27 with respect to obtaining third level education, though the gap is still substantial.

Bertrand Maître, an author of the report commented: “The study demonstrates the detrimental and long-term impact of childhood poverty on economic circumstances in later adulthood. This relationship is greatly affected by educational attainment, and also by disability status or ill health, and employment status. Addressing poverty and its effects requires a range of policy solutions including additional educational supports for disadvantaged children, welfare supports for families, measures to support access to the labour market for people with a disability, and measures to support maternal employment.”

Minister of State with responsibility for Community Development and Charities, Joe O’Brien T.D. said: “Today’s report provides further evidence that experiences of childhood poverty can have a very negative impact on adult life outcomes. As a State we need to continue to invest more in children for their immediate benefit but also the benefit of society as a whole. Poverty will continue to have capacity to transfer from one generation to another unless we build on our current measures to tackle child poverty."

Speaking at the launch of the report, Pobal CEO, Anna Shakespeare said: “The findings of this report demonstrates the significance of reliable metrics and methods which can appropriately evaluate provisions for targeting social exclusion in a way that is rigorous, equitable and meets best practice. The strategic research alliance between the ESRI and Pobal provides a view to both improving the effectiveness and outcomes of certain interventions and also adding to the body of knowledge in relation to social inclusion in Ireland. This report provides important information on the current Irish context and the data evidenced will be a highly beneficial resource for many cross-sectoral groups focused on the eradication of poverty."