Even brief poverty experiences shape children's development
The Sector > Research > Even brief experiences of poverty are enough to harm children’s development

Even brief experiences of poverty are enough to harm children’s development

by Freya Lucas

December 13, 2023

Even a one-off experience of poverty is enough to impact a child’s development, a new study from Trinity College Dublin has found. 


The research investigated the connections between exposure to poverty in early to middle childhood and children’s cognitive and behavioural difficulties assessments at different ages, finding that a combination of parenting stress and a reduced ability to invest in healthy activities, such as reading to children were amongst key factors which impact on children’s development. 


Researchers used data from more than 7,000 children from the Growing Up in Ireland 2008 birth cohort, tracking them at ages nine months, three years, five years and nine years of age. This covered the period from 2008 to 2017, when the living standards of many Irish families fluctuated with the recession and recovery. 


Reporting an experience of poverty at just one of these interviews was classified as “one-off poverty” while those who reported poverty at three or four interviews were in “persistent poverty”.  


Researchers went into the analysis thinking that persistent poverty would be the most harmful, but soon found that even one spell in poverty negatively impacts on child development, especially if experienced around the age three years of age. 


While it has been well established that children from poorer families are at a higher risk of educational and behavioural difficulties, this study gives fresh insights into why this happens.


The presence of poverty in the life of a child, particularly at a young age, can also contribute to behavioural problems in learning settings, and when this takes place in early childhood, it makes it more difficult for children to learn, disadvantageous to them moving forward. 


“The study has several policy implications. Poorer families need to be enabled to engage in cognitively stimulating activities with their children. They also need to be supported so that they are less vulnerable to parenting stress. However, instead of interventions targeting poor parents, a more direct approach is to tackle poverty itself through redistributive taxes and benefits, and service provision,” researchers said.


An electronic version of the paper, entitled ‘Parental investment or parenting stress? Examining the links between poverty and child development in Ireland’, was recently published in a leading European sociological journal European Societies ahead of the print edition. The paper can be downloaded from the journal’s website.

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