Research from the University of Liverpool – published in The Lancet Public Health – shows that children who “move into” poverty are more likely to suffer from social, emotional and behavioural problems than children who remain out of poverty.

The UK Government recently questioned whether the relative measure of income poverty used in this research (a household income that is less than 60% of the national average) is a good indicator of children’s life chances. They claimed it is better to increase the number of parents who are employed than use the social security system to prevent children moving into poverty. However, we know that being employed carries no guarantee of escaping poverty.

The research challenges the government’s view. It was found that living in poverty adversely affected children’s and mothers’ mental health, even if there was no change in the mother’s employment status.

Researchers from the University’s Department of Public Health and Policy explored the impact that being in poverty had on the mental health of children and their mothers, using a nationally representative sample of children born in 2000 and followed up until 2012 (UK Millennium Cohort Study).

The researchers identified 6063 families who were not in poverty and had no mental health problems when their child was 3 years old. They tracked these families and compared the mental health of those that “moved into poverty” to those that remained out of poverty by the time their child was 11 years old.

Fourteen percent (844) of these 6063 families experienced poverty over this period. The children that experienced poverty were 40% more likely to develop social, emotional or behavioural problems, compared to those that remained out of poverty. The mothers who “moved into” poverty were also 44% more likely to develop mental health problems and this partially explained the negative effect that poverty had on children’s mental health.

Dr Sophie Wickham, Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at the University’s Department of Public Health and Policy, said: “Our study shows that moving into poverty damages children’s mental health. Child mental health in the UK is poor, with roughly one in eight children reporting mental health problems, and this is partly because Child poverty is higher in the UK than in other European countries.

“Our findings reinforce the need to monitor income-based measures of child poverty to track the effect that government’s policies are having on children’s lives. In order to improve mental health in the UK it is essential that children are protected from the toxic effects of growing up in poverty.”

Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of Child poverty Action Group, said: “This comprehensive study shows how children’s mental health is compromised by poverty.   It tells us loud and clear that inadequate family income damages children’s life chances – and having a working parent doesn’t stop that damage from happening.

“Working poverty is still poverty. With one in four children in poverty in the UK, and projections that numbers may rise by half by 2020, that should ring alarms. The well-being of our next generation is at stake: surely that is a compelling reason for re-instating poverty-reduction targets that, along with most of the Child Poverty Act, were scrapped last year.  Without targets to track progress on eradicating poverty, how can we know if we’re improving or further jeopardising our children’s well-being?”

The report says that in a UK cohort, first transition into income poverty during early childhood was associated with an increase in the risk of child and maternal mental health problems. These effects were independent of changes in employment status. Transitions to income poverty do appear to affect children’s life chances and actions that directly reduce income poverty of children are likely to improve child and maternal mental health.

Mental health problems, many of which have their origins in childhood, are a substantial cause of morbidity globally, and improvement of child mental health is a policy priority.

Findings from the study indicate that increases in child poverty in the UK are likely to negatively affect child and maternal mental health, independent of employment transitions and other important confounders. This finding is important in the UK policy context because use of income-based poverty measures have been the subject of debate and child poverty levels are predicted to rise by 50% by 2020.

Receipt of tax credits in the UK, which operate below the 60% household income threshold, could have minimised the fall in income experienced by people experiencing poverty during this time and declines in income and mental health effects could have been greater in the absence of this policy than with this policy.

The Government is replacing tax credits with a new benefit — Universal Credit — reducing payments to low-income families. Future research should investigate whether or not these changes in welfare policy modify the relation between poverty transitions and mental health observed in this study.

The research findings reinforce the need to maintain an income-based measure of child poverty and use it to monitor trends and the effects on health of policies that affect children’s lives.


The full study, titled ‘The effect of a transition into poverty on child and maternal mental health: a longitudinal analysis of the UK Millennium Cohort Study’ can be found here.