Persistent poverty damages children’s development

Living in poverty is more damaging to children’s development than if parents don’t read to their children, take them to the library, or help with, writing and maths, researchers at the University of Sheffield found.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield, in collaboration with experts from the University of London, revealed that seven-year-olds who have lived in poverty since infancy perform 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.

© a scale from zero 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’s Department of Economics, analysed data on almost 8,000 members of the Millennium Cohort Study, which has been following the lives of children born in 2000-01.

The researchers looked at whether the children were in poverty at ages nine months, three years, five years and seven 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 three, five and seven, 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 like 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,” added 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 was published by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies.

Additional information

The University of Sheffield

With nearly 25,000 students from 125 countries, the University of Sheffield is one of the UK’s leading and largest universities. A member of the Russell Group, it has a reputation for world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines. The University of Sheffield has been named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards for its exceptional performance in research, teaching, access and business performance. In addition, the University has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes (1998, 2000, 2002, and 2007).

These prestigious awards recognise outstanding contributions by universities and colleges to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life. Sheffield also boasts five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and many of its alumni have gone on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence around the world. The University’s research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls Royce, Unilever, Boots, AstraZeneca, GSK, ICI, Slazenger, and many more household names, as well as UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.

The University has well-established partnerships with a number of universities and major corporations, both in the UK and abroad. Its partnership with Leeds and York Universities in the White Rose Consortium has a combined research power greater than that of either Oxford or Cambridge.


For further information please contact:

Paul Mannion
Media Relations Officer
The University of Sheffield
0114 222 9851