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.


This chapter summarises the main findings of the study, highlighting the main risk factors for children who experience persistent poverty, and draw out the key distinctions between persistently poor children and those that experience poverty only temporarily. Drawing on these findings, the discussion points towards the areas on which policy may need to focus in order to reduce and prevent persistent poverty among families with children.

The main objectives of this study were to measure persistent poverty among young children in Scotland, to investigate the risk factors associated with being persistently poor, and establishing whether persistent poverty is linked to other negative outcomes for children. The study used data from the first four annual sweeps of the Growing Up in Scotland study ( GUS). The first sweep of GUS was carried out in 2005/06 on two cohorts of children; a birth cohort who were aged between 0 and 1 year at the time, and a child cohort who were aged 2-3 years. Much of the analysis in this research used data from children who took part in all four sweeps.

The study used the GUS data to identify children in persistently poor households by mirroring, wherever possible, methodology adopted by DWP in their low-income dynamics research ( DWP, 2009a). This report defined persistently poor households as those with income below 60 per cent of median household income in at least three of the four years under investigation. Using this methodology 24 per cent of birth cohort children, and 21 per cent of child cohort children, were defined as being persistently poor over the period 2005/06 to 2008/09.

Certain children were more likely than others to experience persistent poverty. When controlling for other characteristics of the family, work status had the biggest influence on whether a family would experience persistent poverty. Other factors associated with an increased likelihood of persistent poverty were living in a lone parent family, having a mother with an ethnic minority community background, having parents with no or low qualifications, living in social rented housing and living in a deprived area.

Children in persistently poor families were seen to have worse outcomes than children in temporary poor households. 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. 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 causes, and effects, of living in poverty are complex and not necessarily captured solely by an indicator of low income - or persistent low income in the case of this research. Poverty can manifest itself in many ways, and many of the effects of poverty are captured by what we have termed 'predictors' or 'risk factors' of poverty. We have identified a number of these in Chapter 3 of this report, including low parental education and living in a lone parent family. In Chapter 4 these were shown to be associated with negative child outcomes in our statistical models - whereas our 'indicator' of persistent poverty was not. 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.

It is also important to point out that different risk factors can be both cumulative and interactive in their effects on children. As we have seen in Chapter 3, persistently poor children experience more risks than other children. For example persistently poor children were also likely to come from families with low parental education and poor parental health. Clearly the accumulation of multiple risks in poor families can have a compound effect on child outcomes (Oroyemi et al., 2009). Additionally, these risk factors can have greater negative effects on child outcomes for poor children than for non-poor children (Klebanov, 1998).

All this is not to say that there were no limitations with our research, which could have had implications for our findings. Most notable was the way GUS, due to the scope of the study, measures income, asking the mother to estimate total household income and identifying it using income bands. This clearly is not as accurate as asking for detailed income information, as used in other specialist surveys such as the Family Resources Survey. Other elements of family resources are difficult to capture when using low income to approximate poverty, such as children's consumption, living arrangements and parental expenditures on children.

So what do the findings mean 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. The concerns about persistent poverty are obvious and our study adds to a wealth of other research that suggests that poverty in childhood can have negative effects on children, which in turn can affect future generations - with substantial costs to the individual, their families and society in general.

Despite this evidence, there are no concerted policy measures to tackle persistent poverty above those designed to tackle poverty in general. One reason for this is because poverty is still commonly viewed using a point-in-time perspective. This approach treats the poor as a homogenous group. Taking a dynamic approach shows that people experience different forms of poverty, such as persistent poverty, and policy needs to adapt to the diverse experiences of poverty.

It is generally acknowledged in the poverty literature that there are certain factors that increase and maintain the risk of persistent poverty, and these were shown to play a role here too. These include being a lone parent, having poor health or a disability, and having a large number of children. These then are the types of family that policy makers may focus on to provide targeted or tailored support.

These factors are also linked to a parent's inability to work. Being without paid work, and in particular regular work, is often cited as the key influence on poverty. This research has further supported this assertion. Given that workless families are also likely to experience the range of other disadvantages listed above, employment policy needs to work alongside policies designed to contend with these other hardships. 27

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. Much other poverty research has found that transitions out of poverty, and worklessness, are often short-lived. Indeed some transitions out of poverty are so short-lived they have very little impact on living standards. It is therefore not enough for policy to simply help people find work. Job retention and job progression are also key (Browne and Paull, 2010).

Given the significant numbers of very young children in poverty, many of whom experience enduring poverty in early years of childhood, there is a case for employment policy to focus on would-be and new parents. Given that this research has suggested that avoiding worklessness is key to preventing persistent poverty, attention on fathers' employment may be necessary, given that mothers would be unlikely to be able to work around times of childbirth. However, this research has also shown that having just one parent in work is often not enough to keep couple families above the poverty line - so issues around mothers' employment becomes pertinent when their children get older. Indeed, recent employment policy for lone parents decrees that they are now obliged to look for work to claim benefit when their youngest child reaches primary school age.

Despite calls for a focus on work, although work is often seen as the best protection from poverty, this research has shown that work does not always protect families from persistent poverty, particularly where there is only one worker in the household. Here a discussion of welfare benefits, childcare and wage rates is relevant, but this is beyond the scope of this report. Policy must also recognise that work is not always possible for all parents at all times, particularly during periods of ill health and concentrated times of childcare.

Finally, although a large number of family background variables were controlled for in our analysis there may be many more that can impact on children's outcomes. For example, the economic stress associated with parents living in poverty can interfere with positive parent-child interactions. As another example, children living in poor families can be socially isolated and burdened with the stigma associated with poverty ( EKOS Ltd, 2009). Other possible correlates of child outcomes include parents' personality, parenting practices and the time and quality of care that children receive from their parents and carers.

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