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 aim of this report is to investigate the circumstances and outcomes of young children who experience persistent poverty using longitudinal data from the Growing Up in Scotland ( GUS) survey. This chapter will begin with a brief overview of the UK and Scottish policy targets on child poverty and an introduction to the concept of persistent poverty. The chapter will then outline the aims of the research questions, before introducing the data which will be used.

1.1 Child poverty targets and persistent poverty

The UK Government has made a commitment to end child poverty by 2020 ( HM Treasury, 2004) and also to focus effort on improving the lives of the most disadvantaged members of society (Cabinet Office, 2006). At the heart of the Government's target to eradicate child poverty is evidence to suggest that living in poverty is linked to detrimental outcomes for families with children both now and in the future. There is a wealth of evidence that links living on a low income to other disadvantages. For example, the latest Opportunity for All report shows that children born into poverty are more likely to have a lower birth weight, higher infant mortality and poorer health than better off children ( DWP, 2007a). Research has also shown a relationship between poverty in childhood and well-being as adults, demonstrating that child poverty can leave a damaging long-term legacy regardless of other family circumstances (Blanden and Gibbons, 2006).

Initial progress seemed to indicate that the UK Government had succeeded in arresting and reversing the long-term trend in rising child poverty, lifting approximately 700,000 children out of relative poverty between 1998/99 and 2004/05 ( DWP, 2006), including approximately 90,000 Scottish children ( SG, 2009). However, there are some commentators who predict that the Government will fail to meet its commitment to end child poverty by 2020 (Hirsch, 2006). Additionally Brewer et al., (2007) estimated that the Government was falling behind in attempts to meet a provisional target to reduce child poverty by a half by 2010.

The Scottish Government's latest statistics on child poverty reveal that approximately 20 per cent of children are living below the low-income threshold 1 ( SG, 2009). One of the reasons it is difficult to eradicate child poverty is that current social and economic policies are failing to reach families with the most severe and persistent (or recurrent) economic problems.

Government figures for the latest period (2003-2006) show that one in ten children in the UK lived in households with persistently low income before housing costs - defined as living in low income for three or more years of a four-year period. This figure rises to 14 per cent of children living in persistent poverty when housing costs are taken into account ( DWP, 2009b). However, over a 15-year period there has been a steady reduction in the proportion of children living in persistently low income households ( DWP, 2009a).

In June 2009 the UK Government published The Child Poverty Bill, which defined success in eradicating child poverty and created a framework to monitor progress at a national and local level (House of Commons, 2009). The bill proposed that Scottish and UK Governments draw up strategies for meeting the targets of eradicating child poverty. It also established four child poverty targets to be met by 2020/21 and a 'persistent poverty' measure. Research to date on child poverty in Scotland has focused on measuring child poverty using point in time methods rather than distinctions according to the length of time in poverty. Consequently little is known about the persistence of child poverty and the circumstances of persistently poor Scottish children.

1.2 Aims of this report

The introduction of the Growing Up in Scotland survey in 2005 enables analysts to study the duration and dynamic nature of child poverty, because the same children are followed over time. The aim of this research is to gain an understanding of the background characteristics of children in persistent poverty and the relationship with a range of child outcomes, such as cognitive ability, health and social behaviour.

The report seeks to answer the following 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?

Persistent poverty is defined using methodology that reflects, as closely as possible, the Government's Households Below Average Income ( HBAI) series ( DWP, 2009b) - we also discuss the limitations of the GUS data for measuring household income. The project explores a variety of characteristics of persistently poor children and how they compare to other children, notably those in temporary poverty and those who avoid poverty. Various circumstances of the children, their parents and their family background are investigated, including family size and composition, parents' work status, education and health, and tenure and characteristics of the local area.

There is a wealth of information on the living standards of children who are currently poor, but rather less evidence on the association between living standards and persistent poverty. The analysis presented in this report looks directly at these issues and pays particular attention to the likely impact of living in persistent poverty on outcomes for children.

1.3 The Growing Up in Scotland ( GUS) survey

This report is based on analysis of the first four sweeps (2005/06 to 2008/09) of GUS. Commissioned by the then Scottish Executive Education Department ( SEED), with fieldwork managed by the Scottish Centre for Social Research (ScotCen), GUS is a large-scale longitudinal social survey following the lives of 8,000 Scottish children from early years through to their teens.

The survey was designed to examine the characteristics, circumstances and behaviour of children from birth to late adolescence, to inform policies affecting children and their families in Scotland. The main subject areas covered by GUS are childcare, education, social work, health and social inclusion.

The representative sample of children in Scotland was drawn from Child Benefits records and consists of two cohorts of children. The birth cohort consists of 5,000 infants born between June 2004 and May 2005 and aged 10 months in the first sweep. The child cohort consists of 3,000 toddlers born between June 2002 and May 2003 and aged 34 months in the first sweep.

The GUS survey is carried out through face-to-face interviews with the child's main carer, although the second sweep of the study also included a separate interview with the main carer's resident partner. GUS also collects some information directly from the children including measures of physical growth and assessments of cognitive ability. The GUS families are followed up annually until the target child is 5 years old and subsequently, at key stages in the child's development.

The analysis in this report uses information from families that took part in all of the first four sweeps of GUS. Some families who initially took part in GUS did not do so for all of the subsequent sweeps. In fact, in both GUS cohorts approximately one in four of the original Sweep 1 sample failed to participate in at least one subsequent sweep. There are a number of reasons why respondents drop out from longitudinal surveys and such attrition is not random. However we use the longitudinal weights supplied with the GUS dataset in our analysis to adjust for this. 2

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