Child and parental wellbeing: measuring outcomes and understanding their relation with poverty

Enhancing wellbeing is a crucial element of supporting the lives of children, young people and families living in poverty. This report represents a first step in assessing wellbeing outcomes and understanding their relation with poverty for low income families.


Key messages

Evidence highlights the detrimental impact that poverty has on a child's health and wellbeing.

Children and young people's wellbeing is influenced by the world around them. Therefore, in considering their wellbeing it is important to take into account the wellbeing of their parents and carers as these are often inextricably linked. For example, evidence suggests how parent-child relations may be negatively affected by periods of financial struggle.

When considering wellbeing for children, young people and families living in poverty, we need to consider the context we are operating in. In particular, the recent period of significant social, economic and political change. Most notably, negative impacts on wellbeing have arisen from the COVID-19 pandemic and the cost of living crisis which have disproportionally impacted upon families in low income households.

Policies that support the health and wellbeing of low income families in combination with others that directly boost their income are essential so that the progress achieved towards the 2030 targets is sustained.


Tackling child poverty and achieving the targets set by the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017 is imperative to improving the lives of Scotland's children and young people, their families and wider communities.

The child poverty targets are not an end in themselves. Ultimately, they are about improving parents' and children's wellbeing, quality of life and life chances. We know that poor life outcomes for children and parents are driven by poverty. Therefore, reducing child poverty, through increasing incomes and reducing costs of living, is one important mechanism for doing so. But it is not the only mechanism. We recognise that there are many other important actions being taken forward by the Scottish Government, and its partners, that will improve parents and children's quality of life and life chances. These are a range of actions that will help to build a solid, long term foundation to support the lives of children, young people and families. These policy actions are less about boosting immediate income, and more about supporting and enhancing the health and wellbeing of individuals.

This report intends to be a first step in assessing wellbeing outcomes and understanding their relation with poverty for low income families. As such, this report should be seen as experimental and as a discussion starter in order to facilitate and develop our understanding of wellbeing and poverty. It provides us with a starting point of what we know, what we do not know, and what we need to know.

The ultimate aim is to monitor whether action across drivers of poverty is associated with successful and sustainable ways of improving life chances for families living in poverty, and importantly that it does no additional harm.

Developing an understanding of the relationship between wellbeing and poverty

This section provides an overview of the links between wellbeing and poverty. In particular, there is a focus on what we know, and what we need to know in order to better understand the relationship between wellbeing and poverty.

What do we know about wellbeing and poverty?

Children and young people's wellbeing is influenced by the world around them. Their environment, relationships and experiences contribute to a healthy and happy childhood.[1]

For children and young people, positive relationships can be a cornerstone for ensuring strong mental health and wellbeing, and resilience. In particular, parent-child relationships are of crucial importance – starting with early and secure attachment.[2],[3]

In assessing the wellbeing of children and young people it is important to consider the wellbeing of their parents/carers as these are often inextricably linked.

In the context of child poverty, achieving the child poverty targets is not an end in itself. Ultimately, reducing poverty is about improving parents' and children's wellbeing, quality of life and life chances.

Public Health Scotland (PHS) have observed that living in poverty can negatively impact upon a child's development and health. Evidence shows how health can worsen with longer exposure to poverty.[4] Further, PHS acknowledge how families living in low income households are often unable to access the resources required for a healthy lifestyle. For example, low income households can struggle to access adequate and affordable food, good quality housing, heating, affordable social and cultural opportunities. This scarcity can directly impact on a child's health and wellbeing, as well as having a negative impact on a parent's or carer's health and wellbeing, which in turn, can impact on the relationship between children and their carers.

There are other indirect links between poverty and a child's wellbeing. For example, feelings of exclusion and social isolation. Children living in poverty are more likely to be bullied and less likely to be able to take part in social activities with their peers.[5] Fundamentally, the economic circumstances of a household impact upon both their present and future physical and mental health, but also on their broader wellbeing.[6]

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic there was an increasing concern about the impact of rising poverty on the wellbeing of children and families. This was due to financial insecurity, but also due to rising levels of new families in crisis. Specifically for those families who had to navigate the complex social security system and associated services for the first time, alongside concerns around food insecurity, digital exclusion, poor quality housing, or limited access to outdoor space.[7]

Similarly, early evidence emerging from the recent cost of living crisis highlights how financial crises and periods of uncertainty can have a significant impact on wellbeing. In particular, negative impacts on wellbeing tend to be exacerbated amongst low income households.[8]

PHS highlighted similar concerns on how the recent financial strain of the cost of living crisis can impact upon parent-child relations and parental mental health. Evidence shows how negative wellbeing impacts were felt more acutely by some priority family groups most at risk of poverty.[9]

What do we need to understand about wellbeing and poverty?

There are many important actions being taken forward by the Scottish Government, and its partners, that are anticipated to improve children, young people and family's quality of life and life chances. Policy actions in this space often take time to translate into positive outcomes. This means that results may not be seen in the short term. Developing our understanding of how quality of life, and life chances, contribute to poverty is therefore important.

Reflecting on broader outcomes, experience has made us mindful of the need to ensure that income-based policies continue to support wellbeing. For example, it may not be suitable to encourage a single mother to work longer hours if this impacts negatively on the wellbeing of her and her child. Therefore, analysis of wellbeing metrics will be necessary to monitor that child poverty driver action is associated with positive impacts on longer-term poverty-reduction outcomes and does no additional harm, as well as helping us to understand, and track, improving outcomes for families in poverty.

We have taken some initial steps in doing so. The child poverty evaluation framework contains some guideline research questions on how to assess the impact of policies on child poverty, specifically around the area of enhanced life chances. However, the implementation of this framework is in the early stages and further work needs to take place to ensure that evidence is indeed gathered, collated, assessed and reported.

As part of this report, there are parental/carer measures of wellbeing. The indicators chosen were selected as a first step for exploration of the mental wellbeing and social connectivity of parents and carers. Other measures may need to be included, and we need to expand our understanding on how best to effectively measure and consider wellbeing for the parents and carers of children living in poverty.

The Children, Young People and Families Outcomes Framework

The Children, Young People and Families Outcomes Framework provides an overarching understanding of the wellbeing levels of children and young people living in Scotland. The framework was developed following recommendations from the Scottish Government's review of Children's Services Plans (2017-2020) and in response to stakeholder feedback. The Framework seeks to 'embed a more joined-up strategic narrative on improving outcomes for children and young people across government, with improved use of data'. In particular, it aims to 'support policy cohesion in decision making at both national and local levels'.

In order to align efforts, and support the cohesion and narrative of improving outcomes for children and young people living in poverty, the framework's core wellbeing indicators will be utilised in this report to explore how poverty impacts upon children and young people's wellbeing, and to use this information to inform the planning and delivery of holistic whole family support (such as, Whole Family Wellbeing Funding).

The core wellbeing indicator set consists of 21 high-level measures which can provide insight into levels of wellbeing across time, and by various socio-demographic characteristics. Further information on the development of the outcomes framework and the rationale behind selected indicators can be found in the national reporting.

Each of the indicators fall under three shared aims of the 'My World Triangle'. These are: 'How I grow and develop', 'What I need from the people who look after me', and 'My wider world' (see Figure 1). These headings are adopted in this report to focus on the experiences of children and young people. Further information on the shared aims can be found in Appendix B of the national report.

Figure 1: The My World Triangle
A triangle representing the My World Triangle. On each
side of the triangle a shared aim is written: How I grow and develop; What I
need from the people who look after me; and, My wider world

For further detail on how the My World Triangle is linked to the SHANARRI wellbeing outcomes and UNCRC articles see the national report.

Analysing wellbeing outcomes and their connections with poverty

The most commonly used poverty threshold is 60% of the median household income. This is referred to as relative poverty and is a measure of whether those in the lowest income households are keeping pace with the growth of incomes across the economy as a whole.[10] This method assumes that all individuals in the household benefit equally from the combined income of the household.[11]

However, it is not always possible to obtain household income data from survey participants. Therefore, we may use what we call proxy measures of poverty. This is often the case when collecting data from children and young people.

Some data sources used in this report, such as the Scottish Household Survey, do collect household income. This allows us to compare data by the amount of income available for the household.

However, the majority of data in this report is drawn from the Health and Wellbeing Census. This data was collected via an online survey during the 2021-2022 school year from children and young people in school years P5 to S6. The Health and Wellbeing Census does not collect data on household income. Instead, the data has been linked to the Pupil Census and through this linkage the child's data can be linked to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD).[12]

When household income is not available, we use SIMD as a proxy measure to understand how outcomes may vary for individuals depending on deprivation levels. For example, if children living in the most deprived areas of Scotland are achieving lower outcomes, than those living in the less deprived areas, this suggests an association between a wellbeing indicator and inequality and poverty.

However, caution needs to be taken when using SIMD as it is a relative, area measure of deprivation. This means not every individual in the most deprived areas will be experiencing high levels of deprivation, and similarly, there may be individuals in the least deprived areas experiencing high levels of deprivation. This caveat is particularly true for rural areas where SIMD data zones cover vaster areas and there is a more mixed picture of individuals experiencing different levels of deprivation.[13]

Nevertheless, SIMD is still useful, especially when analysed alongside other data in order to gain a richer picture of the associations between wellbeing and socio-economic disadvantage. Therefore, in this report, where available, we have considered relevant key findings from wider studies. These frequently draw on other proxy measures of poverty and allow us to see if there are similar findings found across these different measures.

Report structure

Firstly, the report utilises the Children, Young People and Families Outcomes Framework, and the associated, core wellbeing indicators, to provide insights and understandings to current levels of wellbeing for children, young people and families living in low income households in Scotland.

The subsequent section of the report explores the relevance of utilising parental wellbeing indicators in order to better understand the wellbeing of families living in poverty. This is situated within the context that children's lives are shaped by the environment and relations around them – with parents being a crucial relationship in a child's life.

Finally, the report offers conclusions and situates the report findings within the relevant policy context. Thus, highlighting the need for periodic analysis of wellbeing indicators as part of efforts to tackle child poverty.



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