Children and young people experiencing persistent poverty have worse health and wellbeing

New ESRI research finds that relationship breakdown and mothers’ or fathers’ job loss are key triggers for transitions into child poverty. Living in poverty, especially over a protracted period of time, has far-reaching consequences for children’s development and wellbeing. The study is part of a research programme between the ESRI and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, and is being launched today by Minister O’Gorman.  

The two cohorts of the Growing up in Ireland (GUI) survey now provide evidence of the economic circumstances of children from infancy to 9 years (‘08 Cohort) and from 9 years to 17 years (‘98 Cohort). This provides the opportunity to study longer term exposure to poverty in a way that has not been possible before.

We use a multi-dimensional measure of poverty that incorporates low income, deprivation and having difficulty making ends meet. The rate varies from 9 per cent in the ’98 Cohort at age 9 to a high of 29 per cent for the ’08 cohort at age 3. The impact of the Great Recession is clearly visible for both cohorts, with rates peaking in 2011–2012.

Exposure to Child Poverty Over Time

Poverty is a common experience for children and young people, with around four-in-ten experiencing at least one spell over the period of the study, 2007 to 2017.  In around half of these cases, families were always or persistently poor while for the other half, poverty was once-off or transient (never in two consecutive surveys).

Persistent poverty was more common among children and young people living in one-parent or large families with four or more children. Maternal characteristics measured at the first interview including low education, ethnic minority status, disability and unemployment were also strongly predictive of persistent poverty.

What influences entry to and exit from poverty?

Relationship breakdown is a key risk for child poverty.  In the ‘98 cohort, families where a partner had left the household between surveys, were 2.5 times more likely to become poor than families where there was no partnership change. In the ‘08 cohort, the risk was 3.5 times greater.

The study highlights the importance of mothers’ and fathers’ employment for family moves into and out of poverty. Maternal job loss is as important as paternal job loss for becoming poor in mid to later childhood and is almost as important in early childhood.

While entering full-time work triggers poverty exits, taking up part-time work does not.

Consequences for child outcomes

Poverty during childhood is associated with worse outcomes across almost all key aspects of a child’s life, including cognitive and educational attainment, school engagement, socio-emotional development, life satisfaction, self-concept, having a chronic illness/disability, obesity, and health behaviours.

For most outcomes, there appears to be a cumulative effect of poverty exposure, in that outcomes are worse in the case of persistent or constant exposure. Nevertheless, even children who have a once off experience of poverty have worse outcomes than those who are never exposed.

The relationship between duration of poverty exposure and outcomes was equally strong for both cohorts, suggesting that effective policy interventions can be made throughout children and young people’s lives and not only in early childhood.

Dr Helen Russell, research professor at the ESRI and one of the report authors said:

There is a wide body of evidence that shows the detrimental effect of childhood poverty in both the short and longer term.  This research highlights family and labour market events that trigger entry and exit from poverty, which can help inform policy interventions.”   

Launching the report Minister O’Gorman noted:

“This paper makes clear the real and damaging long term impact of child poverty. The longer the period growing up in poverty the worse the far-reaching consequences for children’s development and wellbeing. As a Government, we have to be proactive in addressing poverty, as the paper notes, supporting parents through providing accessible, affordable, and high-quality childcare.”