Cuts to benefits this week in the UK are expected to push hundreds of thousands of children into poverty, and the effect this will have on their health is still unknown. While there is substantial evidence that poverty has long-lasting effects on health, we are only beginning to unpick the mechanisms of how this happens.
Poverty is defined by the UK government as living in a household that makes less than 60 per cent of the country’s median annual income. The threshold is currently £17,994. Around 3.2 million children were below this line in 2020 – about 23 per cent of children in the country.
The government’s weekly £20 top-up to Universal Credit payments, intended as a support measure during the pandemic, ends today and is expected to lead to a further 290,000 more children falling below the poverty line, according to the Legatum Institute think tank in London.
“We know child poverty has a massive effect on health,” says David Taylor-Robinson at the University of Liverpool, UK. Research shows that poorer children in the UK are more likely to have asthma and obesity, and more likely to develop stomach cancer as adults. Food insecurity as a child has also been linked to chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular and obstructive pulmonary disease later in life.
There are also wide-reaching other effects, though. Children from poorer families are more likely to begin school with worse literacy skills and develop mental health conditions like anxiety and depression later in life.
The poorest teenagers attend hospital accident and emergency departments 70 per cent more often than the richest, while children in the most deprived parts of England are four times more likely to be hit by a car than children in the wealthiest areas.
The UK government hasn’t carried out a formal risk assessment of what the effect of the cut to Universal Credit will be. A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions told New Scientist that this wasn’t necessary because the top-up was meant to be temporary. But an analysis by Taylor-Robinson and his team, which is yet to be published, suggests the cuts will result in 1500 more children being taken from their families and put into care by social services over the next year.
We are only just starting to figure out the mechanisms behind the effects that poverty has on children’s health. “A lot of it will come down to poor nutrition,” says Jack Shonkoff at Harvard University. But he also says that a persistently activated stress system has a major role in the biology of poverty. Children who grow up around parents or other caregivers who are stressed about money are likely to grow up stressed too, says Shonkoff.
“This stress leads to a persistent elevation of inflammation which affects the immune, metabolic and cardiovascular systems,” he says. “It also disrupts developing brain circuits, some of which are related to a child’s ability to focus, the ability to control their impulses.” These are important for doing well in school, he says.
This makes it harder for these children to reap the full benefits of school and extracurricular activities. “If we had policies that targeted this stress – maybe these children would be slightly better off,” says Shonkoff.
This is pertinent at a time when schools in the UK are trying to make up for the closures and disrupted teaching of the pandemic which have disproportionately affected children from less wealthy households.
To get a better picture of how poverty affects children, and the impact that social policies can have, neuroscientists at Columbia University in New York are studying the brains of the children of a thousand mothers living in poverty.
The team is giving each family a weekly cheque of either $20 or $333 and tracking how the children’s brains develop between the ages of 1 and 4, as well as monitoring the mothers’ health and stress levels too.
Studies like these, which seek to go beyond correlation and determine the direct effect of poverty on children, are rare but growing in number. They should help guide interventions to help children from poorer backgrounds.
But for this to happen, policy-makers need to pay close attention to the evidence. “It is clear [government welfare] policies are not built around science,” says Taylor-Robinson. “I was a paediatrician initially,” he says. “And you quickly realise that a lot of the problems that come through the doors – despite your medical training – are due to poverty and material deprivation that need to be sorted out by the government.”
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman told New Scientist that the payment top-ups were “designed to help claimants through the economic shock and financial disruption of the toughest stages of the pandemic, and they have done so.”
“Universal Credit will continue to provide vital support for those both in and out of work and it’s right that the government should focus on our Plan for Jobs, supporting people back into work and supporting those already employed to progress and earn more,” he said.
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