Children Who Cannot Escape The Poverty Trap

A child born to a labourer is six times more likely to suffer extreme poverty by the age of 30 than one born to a lawyer, a major study has revealed. In a remarkable portrait of childhood in Britain, academics have exposed a society in which inequalities are entrenched and social mobility is a myth.

Millions of bright children face ‘multiple deprivation’ in adulthood simply because of the circumstances of their birth. The study also shows that, despite billions of pounds of government funding to cut child poverty, the gap between the poorest and richest children is probably wider today than it was three decades ago.

Those born into disadvantaged families in 2000, it concludes, have slipped further behind their middle-class counterparts by the age of three than those who grew up in the Seventies. By 2030 Britain could be home to a society far more unequal than it is today.

The report, published by the National Children’s Bureau, the Institute of Education in London and the Family and Parenting Institute, shows how the homes children are brought up in, their parents’ jobs and their family income have had a huge impact on future prospects.

Before a child reaches secondary school, academics were able to say how likely it was to struggle financially and socially as an adult, turn to drugs and alcohol, be obese, suffer long-term depression and have no qualifications.

The report, Reducing Inequalities, realising the talents of all, states that it is not just those at the bottom of the pile who suffer. Using data from a study that tracked the lives of 17,000 people born in 1970, academics found that a bus driver’s child was significantly more likely to fall into poverty as an adult than a plumber’s child, who in turn was more at risk than that of a shop assistant.

‘There are 10 risk factors in childhood predicting multiple deprivation in adulthood at age 30,’ said Leon Feinstein, an academic at the Institute of Education and one of the authors of the study. ‘Parental occupation, low income and social housing are all examples.’

He argued that children who were at risk could be identified using the results of the study and targeted, and also warned that the equality gap may be widening. ‘Preliminary analysis suggests that inequality may have deepened over time,’ said Feinstein, who used ‘indices of advantage’ that ranked children in terms of their access to resources. In this way, he was able to compare the 20 per cent most disadvantaged children to the 20 per cent most advantaged.

The report points out that the housing boom meant that those who could not afford to buy a property would lag even further behind. Middle-class families used additional income to invest in their children’s education by buying books, computers and tutoring. Children were also more likely to have a space to study.

But the report insists things can be changed. ‘The question is what should school be doing, what should the community be doing, what should the family be doing to make sure these children have the support they need to realise their educational potential,’ said Barbara Hearn, the deputy chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau, who co-authored the paper.

In Dartford in south London, at the local Family Welfare Association, Amanda Wright is working with a number of families. In one case, a 10-year-old boy was behaving badly in school and performing poorly in tests. ‘It turned out he was very bright but had difficulty forming friendships,’ said Wright.

The boy was placed on a ‘social skills’ programme with other children, supervised by an educational psychologist, while other professionals worked with his mother in the home. ‘Mum was having problems with self-esteem, so they were mirroring each other,’ said Wright. ‘We worked to break that belief they had about themselves.’ But with one other member of staff and 32 schools, Wright – like many other professionals – is stretched to the limit.