How childhood family income affects adulthood

April 24, 2012

A study from the University of Otago’s long-running Christchurch Health and Development Study (CHDS) throws new light on a current issue; links between family income and other outcomes later in life such as health and educational achievement.

The study, by Dr Sheree Gibb and colleagues, just published in Social Science and Medicine investigated the impacts of on children up to the age of 10 years and how this is reflected in later life.

It shows that poverty and low income during childhood were associated in adolescence and adulthood with poorer educational achievement, lower earnings and higher rates of welfare dependency up to the age of 30. The results held true even when a range of childhood and family factors were taken into account.

“For this cohort of 987 individuals the major effects of being brought up in a poor family appear to be a significant reduction in both educational achievement and earning opportunities that was still evident at 30,” says Professor David Fergusson.

“In contrast the children of families who earned the top 25% in income are more likely to leave school with qualifications, more likely to go to university, earned $11,750 more a year at 30 and had rates of economic hardship less than a third of those in the bottom 25% in income.”

These results reflect a wide range of other international studies demonstrating that poverty in childhood has a negative impact on both educational achievement and earning power in adulthood.

According to the OECD (2011) around 15% of children in this country are now brought up in poverty, and New Zealand has a high level (around 20%) of academic lowachievers at secondary school.

The study also notes that the evidence suggests there is an intergenerational transmission of , and economic improvement, whereby increasing is associated with increasing levels of economic and
educational success.

“But contrary to popular belief being brought up in a poor family in this study does not mean increased rates of crime or mental health problems in adulthood,” adds Professor Fergusson.

The contextual impact of factors relating to the individual, as well as the family and social environment, were adjusted to distinguish these from the direct impact of low family income.

When this was done it found that poverty and other family factors are not associated with increased rates of crime in adulthood, or mental health problems or related outcomes; but the reasons are not yet clear.

The study therefore suggests caution with regard to claims that reducing childhood poverty will also have a significant and direct effect on crime and other psychosocial outcomes in New Zealand.

“This suggests the most prudent approach to reducing these social problems is through the development of multi-compartmental policies that attempt to reduce childhood poverty as well as the complex psychosocial problems faced by many poor families,” says Fergusson.

Professor David Fergusson says that an important limitation of these findings is they are based on a cohort of 1200 children who grew up in the 1980s. It is not clear to what extent the results can be applied to contemporary cohorts of children in poor families.

Explore further: Strong social networks mean less stress for parents

Related Stories

Strong social networks mean less stress for parents

November 10, 2011

A U of A professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy has found that those conversations with fellow parents around the barbeque or at the playground can be important to maintaining a happy family.

Chronic stress seems linked to achievement gap

January 31, 2011

( -- Children in low-income families lag behind their higher-income counterparts on virtually all measures of achievement, and this gap tends to increase over time. There are many reasons why, but a Cornell environmental ...

Mental health of child refugees is global problem

August 11, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- A recent two-part study, published online in the Lancet, highlights the urgent need for high-income countries and international agencies to contribute towards the funding of interventions to tackle the ...

Recommended for you

Waiting periods reduce deaths from guns, study suggests

October 17, 2017

(—A trio of researchers with Harvard Business School has found evidence that they claim shows gun deaths decline when states enact waiting period laws. In their paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy ...

Roman theater uncovered at base of Jerusalem's Western Wall

October 16, 2017

Israeli archaeologists on Monday announced the discovery of the first known Roman-era theater in Jerusalem's Old City, a unique structure around 1,800 years old that abuts the Western Wall and may have been built during Roman ...

Human speech, jazz and whale song

October 13, 2017

Jazz musicians riffing with each other, humans talking to each other and pods of killer whales all have interactive conversations that are remarkably similar to each other, new research reveals.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.