Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to be socially excluded as adults, new research confirms

Lonely ladyChildren from economically-deprived families are more likely to be socially excluded as adults, according to new research published by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies.

Agnese Peruzzi of the Institute for Advanced Studies, Pavia, Italy, analysed data from more than 7,000 members of the 1970 British Cohort Study, which follows people born across England, Scotland and Wales in a single week in 1970. She tracked the paths through which disadvantage in childhood can lead to social exclusion in adulthood.

To capture the multi-faceted nature of social exclusion, Agnese examined a combination of six risk factors:

  • poor physical and mental health
  • lack of emotional support from friends and family, and of trust in others
  • little or no interest or engagement in politics
  • having a low income, debts, or not having savings
  • limited access to good quality public services
  • being unemployed.

The findings show that childhood economic deprivation – measured by factors such as income poverty and being on free school meals – increased the likelihood of being socially excluded as an adult. Economic deprivation was also the strongest predictor of emotional problems, poor educational attainment and engagement in deviant behaviour in adolescence, which themselves increase chances of social exclusion in adulthood.

However, it is the effect of economic deprivation on educational attainment that is the most detrimental to adult social wellbeing. Those children who experienced any form of disadvantage before the age of 10 were less likely than their more affluent peers to do well in school at age 16 and more likely to engage in deviant behaviour, such as drug abuse. They were also less likely to have higher qualifications by age 30, such as a university degree or diploma.

Educational attainment – at age 16, 30 or both – had a direct effect on all six risk factors leading to adult social exclusion. This suggests education has a pivotal role to play in avoiding the transmission of disadvantage from childhood to adulthood.

Family socio-demographic risks in childhood – such as being born to a single mother or spending time in local authority care before age 5 – did not have a direct effect on adult social exclusion, but they did increase the likelihood of engaging in deviant behaviour in adolescence. Deviant behaviour in turn affected adult social exclusion both directly and indirectly through its negative effect on highest qualification obtained by age 30.

While any childhood disadvantage had a negative effect on adult social wellbeing, each of the adult risk factors was affected by a different combination of circumstances and outcomes earlier in life. Childhood economic deprivation led to teenage emotional problems, which were the strongest predictors of both poor health and lack of access to good-quality public services as an adult.

The study’s author urges policymakers to widen the scope of welfare measures beyond a narrow focus on people’s employability. In particular, the negative effects of childhood disadvantage on educational attainment must be considered, as education can be a protective factor against social exclusion in adulthood.