Growing up in Scotland: the circumstances of persistently poor children

This report looks at how many children experience persistent poverty and which children are most likely to be persistently poor. It also examines the outcomes of children from persistently poor families.



The Child Poverty Bill, which defined success in eradicating child poverty, created a framework to monitor progress at a national and local level (House of Commons, 2009). The bill established four child poverty targets to be met by 2020/21 and a 'persistent poverty' measure. The Scottish Government will be accountable to these targets.

Current research on child poverty in Scotland has focused on understanding child poverty as a static concept, rather than exploring distinctions according to poverty duration. Consequently little is known about the persistence of child poverty and the circumstances of persistently poor Scottish children. This report uses data from the Growing Up in Scotland study ( GUS) to explore the circumstances and outcomes of young children who experience persistent poverty. The report investigates three distinct research questions:

  • How many children experience persistent poverty?
  • Which children are most likely to be persistently poor?
  • What are the outcomes of children from persistently poor families?

Findings in this report are based on data from interviews with the cohort child's main carer across the first four years of GUS, covering the period from 2005/06 to 2008/09. Data for both the birth and child cohort children are used in the report. This means that the most recent sweep of GUS captures information about birth cohort children aged 3-4 years and child cohort children aged 5-6 years.

Measuring persistent poverty

We use a relative measure of low income to define poverty which mirrors the Scottish Government's most often used poverty indicator. Children are defined as income poor if they live in a household that has income below 60 per cent of the median equivalised population household income. We define children as persistently poor if they have lived in a low-income household at three or four of the four annual GUS interviews.

GUS collects information on household income via a question which asks the mother of the GUS child to indicate the total income of her household from 17 income bands, ranging from 'Less than £3,999' to '£56,000 or more'. This is a rather different approach to that used in specialist income surveys, which ask questions about a variety of income sources to all adults in the household. Clearly, using just one question to measure household income is not ideal and other research has also found that when using a single question women with children tend to underestimate their household's income. It is important to note therefore that using a poverty measure based on income collected in this way may well impact on findings, and this should be borne in mind when interpreting the analysis presented in this report.

How many children experience persistent poverty?

Approximately three in ten young Scottish children were income poor according to the four separate annual sweeps of GUS from 2005/06 to 2008/09. Poverty is clearly dynamic. Some children experienced poverty for longer durations and some for shorter durations, whilst others avoided poverty altogether. Two fifths of GUS children (42 per cent of each cohort) experienced poverty at least once in the four-year period suggesting that poverty touches more Scottish children than standard, point-in-time estimates may imply.

One in four (24 per cent) 3-4 year-olds and one in five (21 per cent) 5-6 year-olds were persistently poor over the period (that is, poor in three or four years from 2005/06 to 2008/09). Four in five children who are poor in 2008/09 had been persistently poor over the previous four years.

It is important to note that we are not able to compare our estimates of persistent poverty in Scotland with estimates of persistent poverty in Great Britain. Although estimates of persistent poverty among young Scottish children appear higher than estimates of persistent poverty among children in Great Britain there are a number of reasons why we are not comparing like for like. For example, estimates from Great Britain come from other surveys, such as the Families and Children Study (Barnes et al., 2008) and the British Household Panel Study ( DWP, 2009a), which collect information about children of all ages and use a different, more detailed way of asking families about their income.

Which children are most likely to be persistently poor?

The risk of being persistently poor varies according to children's background circumstances. Unsurprisingly, parental work status played a key role. Children most at risk of persistent poverty, when controlling for a range of background circumstances, were those living in workless households and those with low 'average work intensity' (a measure of the amount of work parents do across the period). For example, the vast majority of children (89 and 85 per cent of the birth and child cohorts respectively) with parents with low average work intensity (which corresponds to the situation of a family where all parents worked, at most, in only one of the four years under investigation) were persistently poor.

Other children at risk of persistent poverty included those in lone-parent families, larger families, families with a mother from ethnic minority communities, families with parents with no or low education, families that lived in rented housing (particularly social-rented) and families that lived in multiply-deprived areas. Of course some of these factors may not be driving persistent poverty, they may be consequences of being poor, and for others the relationship with poverty is inherently complex.

What are the outcomes of children from persistently poor families?

One of the reasons GUS asks only limited information about income is to allow the interviewer sufficient time to ask mothers about a range of issues regarding their children. We looked at five indicators of child disadvantage, including being overweight, concerns over language development, and social, emotional and behavioural problems - and explored whether persistently poor children were at greater risk. We also counted how many of these disadvantages children have and focused on children that face multiple problems.

Children in persistently poor families were more likely to face disadvantages than children in temporary poor families. For example, children in both cohorts were more likely to have accidents or injuries, and suffer from social emotional and behavioural difficulties, the longer they had been poor. However, when controlling for other family and area factors in our statistical models, the direct relationship between the duration of low income and child outcomes disappeared. Furthermore, there was no relationship between any experience of poverty over the period and child outcomes. Instead we saw a range of other factors being associated with child outcomes, including gender, family size and mothers' ethnicity and health.

What is important to note here is that the effects of living in poverty are complex and not necessarily captured solely by an indicator of low income or the duration of low income (particularly when using the imperfect measure of income collected in GUS). Poverty can manifest itself in many ways, and many of the effects of poverty are captured by characteristics such as low parental education and living in a lone-parent family - both associated with persistently-poor families. Therefore our research suggests that the impact of poverty appears to be evident through the association with other family disadvantages, rather than low income per se, and that the presence and accumulation of these disadvantages can have negative impacts on outcomes for young children.

The children are perhaps too young for the data to pick up direct effects of persistent poverty - which may only be seen directly later on in childhood - particularly for measures such as BMI, as young children develop at such different rates. Further more detailed information on disadvantages more germane to younger children may in fact reveal differences at this younger age, but these measures are not available in the GUS data. Also, previous research has shown that mothers try to shield the effect of poverty from their children and they are perhaps more likely to do this or more succesful in doing this when their children are very young.

Implications for policy

The evidence from GUS suggests that persistent poverty is concentrated in a minority, but still a substantial proportion (over one in five), of young Scottish children. Our study adds to a wealth of other research that suggests that poverty in childhood can have negative effects on children's well-being. Despite this evidence, there are no concerted policy measures to tackle persistent poverty above those designed to tackle poverty in general.

This research has further supported the assertion that being without work, and in particular regular work, is a key influence on poverty. However, given that families without work are also likely to experience a range of other disadvantages - including low education and poor health, and often require quite complex childcare arrangements to be able to work - employment policy needs to operate alongside policies designed to contend with these other hardships. If finding work is key to the chances of escaping persistent poverty, policy needs to ensure that when work is found it is secured and sustained. Job retention and job progression are also key.

Although work is often seen as the best protection from poverty, this research has also shown that work does not always protect families from persistent poverty, particularly where there is only one worker in the household. Also, policy must recognise that work is not always possible for all parents at all times, particularly during periods of ill health and concentrated times of caring for young children. This implies that other types of support may be required. And given this research has shown links between persistent poverty and maternal health, low education and family composition, it may be that targeted and tailored support for families and mothers with specific circumstances may be appropriate.

This research has shown that poverty is a complex and dynamic phenomenon and that measuring poverty, and its impacts, is not straightforward. Understanding poverty through survey data requires a range of robust indicators, ideally measured over time. GUS provides a useful source of data for exploring poverty among young children in Scotland and there is undoubtedly scope for further research of this rich dataset. Some suggestions for further research include exploring families' transitions into and out of poverty, and the role of financial stress on parenting.

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