The Effect Of Poverty On Childhood Development

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Imagine a child running down the street, his heart eager with anticipation for what’s to come as the patter of his feet on the pavement match his tiny heart pounding in his chest. The boy’s eyes bubbling with a child-like glimmer to the sound of the few pennies in his tattered trouser pocket clinking and rustling against one another. The swirls of Cadbury’s chocolates whirling around his head. He had begged his mother for just a couple pounds to run to the store, “please, please, please,” at first, she refused his relentless cries, but soon enough, gave in to her son’s pleas. She had shaken her head while sighing, her tired eyes smiled as the pennies were placed into his open palms. The small child pushes open the door and hears the jingle of the bell above the door frame. He found where he wanted to be, but the closer he gets to his goal, the heavier his heart begins to feel. The thought that the change in his hands could be used for many important things. Buying groceries. Paying the water bill. Fixing the broken door-handle. The guilt-ridden thoughts force the boy’s feet to turn back in the direction of his home, head held low with the weight of the world on his helpless should.


Although a minor example, something this minute and meaningless could mean the world to a child. Being forced to learn such an important lesson at such an early age, knowing you must behave with a greater level of maturity, more so than your peers, knowing you cannot afford to enjoy the simplicity of life, like buying a bar of chocolate because your family has too many burdens to deal with. This is not a moral message a child should be required to have ingrained in their minds, in contrast, children should be able to live carefree of the ‘adult problems’ like how the utility bills are going to be paid or when their next sufficient meal will be or feeling ashamed to wear the same pair of broken shoes because their parents do not have the means to buy them new ones. However, sadly this is the world we live in, and have been living in for too long, where even the most dependant of us, kids, must throw away their youth for the greater problems their worlds face. All because of one thing. Poverty.

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Before we can truly grasp the impact and severe effects poverty has on the deprived children of Scotland, first we must define what the connotations of the word are, to begin with. What is poverty? How do we determine whether someone is in poverty or not? The dictionary definitions of poverty are simply stated as, ‘the state of being extremely poor’1 or as the ‘lack of something; poor quality’2, in simple terms. However, poverty cannot be that simple. Surely there and many more layers to the concept we have created to undermine millions of people around the world? One author delves a little deeper into what poverty truly means for them: ‘The lack of security… the absence of one or more factors that enable individuals or families to assure basic responsibilities and to enjoy fundamental rights.’3 In other words, to be in poverty means to have your basic human rights stripped from you, you are deprived of the joys of what life has to offer as well as the trivial hardships of day to day life. You no longer have the privilege to ponder over the trivial facts everyone appears to be consumed with. In Scotland and across the rest of Europe, poverty is measured concerning a family’s total household income4, therefore, a low household income would indicate poverty. A low income would be less than 60 per cent of the average national income of the country4, and the income is calculated before any household costs have been deducted, however, The Child Poverty Act Group5 argues that household income should be calculated after housing costs have been deducted from the total to give more representative data based on how much a family has access to, this would give a more accurate basis of how many families struggle with day-to-day expenditures. Despite the methods used to determine poverty in Scotland, poverty is not an isolated effect of not having adequate access to money, it is accompanied by a magnitude of obstacles which endlessly hold a person back from succeeding and achieving their true potential. Although, according to Jensen SK et al, it is not, in fact, poverty itself which has detrimental effects on children, ‘but a multitude of risk factors associated with a poor socioeconomic position’6 that inflict majority of the harm. For example, stress, unhealthy lifestyle, higher infant mortality and poor general health and mental wellbeing which are factors associated with children living in poor families, to speak of a few.

It is important to note that a child born into poverty not only has a significantly lower chance at life-long success but it poses a detrimental impact to their life span, according to an article written by The Guardian, it is stated that a boy born into a family living in the 10 per cent of most disadvantaged regions of Scotland have massive 13 year decrease in life span, compared to a boy born to 10 per cent of Scotland’s wealthiest areas7. The shorter life span related to poverty possibly due to many causes, such as diseases developed due to a poor-quality environment, an unhealthy lifestyle which leads to life-limiting illnesses, lack of education that can lead opportunities which help reverse the effects of poverty, these factors may equate to prolonged experience of poverty leading to mental health issues and increasing rates of suicide.


One of the many outcomes of poverty which effects childhood development is undoubtedly the physical environment the child lives in, i.e. housing and surrounding areas. If a family has a low household income, it is, as an obvious consequence, that the area and quality of accommodation that the family will be able to afford will be greatly impacted. Ultimately forcing children to live in unsafe and poorly maintained postcodes: hazardous and rarely renovated housing structures, high crime rates in surrounding region, over-crowding in houses and condensation and damp engulfing the buildings leading to many health risks to vulnerable children. These factors cause substantial problems for adults themselves, therefore, even more so detrimental to children and their growth and development. As reported by Shelter Scotland, one in ten children are said to be living in overcrowded housing in Scotland which would equal to ninety-six thousand children8. Overcrowding is linked to devastating and at times fatal illnesses and accidents relating to children9, they are ten times more prone to contracting meningitis9 which is ‘an infection of membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord’ and can be can detrimental effects on children if left untreated for prolonged periods of time10. Long-term effects of the disease are deafness, blindness and behavioural problems9. As stated by WHO, other diseases which a child living in overcrowded housing is more likely to contract is Typhus, cholera and scabies as well as many acute respiratory tract infections11. Many of the infections are significantly due to the cold, damp and mouldy environment as a result of the inefficient, old buildings which are not regularly renovated. Cold temperatures create a difficulty in children to resist infections, damp conditions will give rise to various forms of bacteria and viruses, whereas mould can cause the development of asthma and other respiratory problems due to the production of allergens9. In addition, lead-poisoning and mental health issues are also associated with poor quality housing12. Thus, low quality housing undeniably impairs childhood develop from regular minor infections to life-threatening illnesses whose effects may remain with the child throughout the course of their lives.


Furthermore, a low household income is clearly linked to a poor lifestyle and the nutritional availability for the family, and most importantly the child which impacts substantially impacts development. A common assumption relating to poverty is that the poor-quality diet is due to lack of education and knowledge of healthy and safe eating. However, author from ‘The Conversation’, Kennedy, disagrees with this statement claiming ‘people who are experiencing food poverty are not ignorant of what they should eat as part of a healthy diet or even where to buy affordable food.’13 She states that food is the most adjustable item in a low income family’s budget, therefore it is commonly the first to suffer when financial struggles arise,13 and a low income means that families cannot afford fresh fruit and vegetables, which are a huge requirement for a healthy diet on their own. Research claims that insufficient intake of fruit and vegetables results in increased deaths due to the following: 14 per cent due to gastrointestinal cancer, 11 per cent due to ischaemic heart disease, and 9 per cent due to stroke, worldwide14. Studies show that instead of the more expensive, less filling and healthier options people will be more inclined to grab food that is high in carbohydrates and fats as they are cheaper and more filling, however, create a state of ‘feeling full, not healthy’13. Although temporarily satisfying, his method leads to many health complications in the long run such as, obesity and malnutrition13, especially in children who require plenty of nutrients at their rapidly growing ages. A major public health concern on the rise is child obesity15. With an increase in unhealthy foods – high in fat, salt and free sugars – the child has extremely high chances of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease16 in future years, both of which reduce life-expectancy.

Another major lifestyle factor related to a low socioeconomic status is smoking and alcohol intake. As a likely result of the increased stress which undoubtedly comes with being in poverty, many people would resort to harmful methods to relive their worries and anxieties, a common method adapted is excessive drinking and even more so – smoking. Initially, smoking is burdensome on an already financially struggling household due to the high cost of cigarettes, however, smoking leads to many health complications which present much later in life. In addition, adults smoking in the home places the children at risk of second-hand smoking, as stated by one source, ‘breathing in someone else’s cigarette smoke is just as bad for you as for the smoker’,17 moreover, children absorb a greater volume of smoke into their lungs17, posing a higher risk than adults breathing in smoke. At times, children themselves are influenced to start smoking, as they are very impressionable, and their minds are still developing (and continue to develop until the age of 2518), they are likely to continue with the habit into late adulthood if no there is no early intervention to prevent this from happening. Long-term smoking increases their risk of diseases such as, COPD, heart disease, stroke and many forms of cancer19.


Education is an important element in our lives and living in a developed country such as Scotland, we are fortunate enough to have free access to primary, secondary and even university education. A fact, which we may way take for granted, at times. However, despite this privilege, many children are still unable to excel in their education due to many obstacles which effect their performance in school and ability to learn. Barriers like their family’s income, the environment they live in and the lifestyle they live, can lead to a child not being able to reach their true potential and enhance their talents. Children from poorer backgrounds are shown to have a greater disadvantage in relation to cognitive development and their in-school attainments20. It is stated that parents’ social class and educational qualifications play a larger role in influencing a child’s educational outcome than the household income itself. However, a family with lower educational success is likely to have a low household income as a result of the lack of job opportunities. A child with guardians who are high academic achievers themselves, will be more likely to have greater goals and aspirations and have wider access to opportunities which allow them to pursue higher paying, better quality jobs that would keep the likelihood of poverty low. In contrast, children belonging to a poorer educational background tend to drop out of full-time education at an earlier stage with few-to-no formal qualifications, compared to their better-off peers21. The increasing incidences of young people who have access to private tutors22 widen the already significant gap in attainment levels between the poor and more affluent pupils. 25% of young people in Britain were able to access private tutors with the average cost being £30 an hour,22 a figure most low-income families cannot afford. The Scottish cohort study, ‘Growing up in Scotland’24 reported that 5-year-olds from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds were 13 months and 10 months behind in vocabulary and problems solving, respectively, in comparison to children belonging to higher-income backgrounds. These facts make it clear that children from lower-income families are at a disadvantage in relation to educational attainment due to the factors accompanying poverty.

Furthermore, as previously detailed, a child’s poor health, a result of their low-quality environment and unhealthy lifestyle, can majorly impact their ability to learn and is likely to reduce performance rate – which would lead to further attainment issues and future job prospects. In contrast however, aside from factors which contribute to educational difficulties in poor children, according to Health Scotland, there are components in a child’s life that are not driven by poverty, which positively influence educational success. The parent’s involvement in the child’s learning, effective preschool education, and extra-curricular support within school.22 This suggests that if a child has an effective support system around them, both in-school and out-with – especially the family’s mindset and their approach in driving forward the importance of education – can positively impact the child’s education dramatically. Having beneficial examples can create a motivational drive to aim for a better quality of life for themselves and future generations.

Mental Health

Low-quality environment, poor lifestyle and educational disadvantages which are demonstrated risk factors of poverty, certainly lead to the development of mental health issues in children. Mental health is a serious issue in the poor communities, an issue which is heavily neglected and overlooked. As previously mentioned, the stress which is accompanied by poverty and its associated factors leads to mental exhaustion for the individual(s) who are experiencing poverty. As stated by The Mental Health Foundation, there is a distinct relationship between a low household income and negative impacts on mental health, ‘A growing body of evidence, mainly from high-income countries, has shown that there is a strong socioeconomic gradient in mental health’.25 children living in low-income households are at a higher risk of suffering from many mental illnesses, as they ‘feel distinctly less optimistic about their future than their more affluent peers’26, with every fifth child in poverty feeling unaccomplished, in contrast with every seventh of their wealthier counterparts experiencing a similar ordeal26. Although, once again, an effective support system could potentially oppose the negative mental outcomes of poverty and allow for children to have ambitions of an optimistic future.

Another significant driver of poor mental well-being in these children are ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’ (ACEs). Adverse childhood experiences are traumatising and painful experiences that have negative, long-term effects on children and teenagers, which include elements such as physical abuse, emotional neglect and living with growing up in a household with alcohol and drug use concerns27, whereas poverty itself is not considered an adverse childhood experience. Although, not every family in poverty is impacted by ACEs, a substantial number of impoverished families are impacted by multiple. These traumatic experiences remain with the child throughout their life as a combination of poverty and ACEs, which cause deep-rooted trauma and stress, establish a greater difficulty in removing one’s self out of poverty for an extensive period27, and increases the chances of suicide in poorer regions of Scotland because of the poor mental conditions of individuals and prolonged time living with poverty.


To conclude, as demonstrated throughout the work, child poverty results in unfavourable outcomes in childhood development. Poverty itself, which is considered as a lack of sufficient income to provide for a household, does not outright have a negative impact on a child’s health and development, rather, the risk factors poverty predisposes to (i.e. environment, lifestyle, education and mental health issues) are the determining factors of the harmful implications that children have to face during their childhoods and the effects which remain persistent into adulthood and beyond. A child born into poverty is likely to remain in poverty throughout the course of their life, unless effective intervention is made to prevent the continuation of the cycle. 


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