Rory Hearne: The impact of economic inequality on children’s levels of wellbeing has received increased attention internationally. This blog draws on the findings from TASC’s second annual report on economic inequality in Ireland, Cherishing All Equally 2016, to provide a brief analysis of the extent and impact of economic inequality on children in Ireland.
The blog is in two parts. Today’s one deals mainly with the impact of economic inequalities such as child poverty, education and emotional well-being, while tomorrow in Part two, I look at inequalities in health and housing and also provide analysis of causes and solutions.
In their ground-breaking work on inequality, The Spirit Level, Wilkinson and Pickett (2009) highlighted the strong links between higher levels of economic inequality and poorer levels of child wellbeing. An update of their research in 2015 for 21 wealthy countries (including Ireland) shows that countries which have become more unequal in recent decades have also seen a decline in levels of child wellbeing.
Chart: Change in inequality and child wellbeing in 21 wealthy countries
We can see from the Chart above that child wellbeing has worsened considerably in Ireland in recent years. This is largely down to the financial crash, bailout, prolonged recession and decisions around the how austerity was implemented.
The section on Children and Economic Inequality in Ireland in Cherishing All Equally 2016 provides a detailed overview and analysis of how economic inequality, which has worsened in this period, is having a detrimental impact on a large proportion of children in Ireland, particularly the most disadvantaged.
It is important to start with an understanding that economic inequality is about more than just income. It is about the lack of basic necessities such as an adequate diet or warm clothes; living in substandard housing; being homeless; living in poorly serviced neighbourhoods with high levels of crime and anti-social behaviour; having poor access to health services; being at higher risk of infant and child mortality; having limited access to social and family services; experiencing educational disadvantage; having limited access to playgrounds, sporting and recreational facilities or cultural activities.
It is also about understanding how children experience their lives in the context of the wider society in which they live, their levels of relative poverty, deprivation, social class, their access to resources, education, health and their levels of happiness, anxiety, and perception of self-worth compared to others.
Child wellbeing and inequality
For example, in Cherishing All Equally 2016 we draw on the Growing up In Ireland study (the national longitudinal study of children and youth in Ireland which started in 2006 and follows two cohorts of children – one group born in 1998 and one group in 2008) to show the profound impact of economic inequality on children’s emotional wellbeing in Ireland.
At age just 9 years old there is already a negative correlation between children’s self-image and their social class background with a decline in the self-image of children from higher to lower social class and income backgrounds.
Children from higher social class backgrounds (professional and managerial) were found to have a significantly more positive self-image at the age of nine in terms of behaviour, were more confident as learners, happier, less anxious, felt they were more popular and had a more positive body image than those from more disadvantaged backgrounds. In contrast, children from more disadvantaged backgrounds were more anxious, less happy and reported poorer behaviour. Children whose families were in the lowest income quintile (fifth) reported the poorest behaviour. Furthermore, children in the bottom two income groups displayed the highest levels of anxiety.
Another useful indicator of economic inequality affecting children is the proportion of children at risk of poverty or social exclusion. Using the Eurostat measure, the figure for Ireland is 27.6% - which is higher than the EU average of 24.4% (see Chart below) and almost double the rates in Sweden and the Netherlands.
Chart: Children (0-16 years) at risk of poverty or social exclusion in the EU 28
Evidence from Growing Up in Ireland shows the unequal impact of the recession as it was overwhelmingly children in the bottom 50% of households who experienced the increase in poverty and deprivation (economic vulnerability) during this period. In contrast none of the children in the top income quartile experienced economic vulnerability (see Chart below)
Chart: Children experiencing economic vulnerability by income quartile, 2011/2012
Economic inequality influences educational attainment inequalities from an extremely young age. For example, at nine months old, the level of household income a child is born into has no correlation with their inherent cognitive potential (educational ability).
But by aged three children in higher income families are performing better than those in lower income families with a difference of at least 10 points in the average scores on the Naming Vocabulary tests between children in the lowest income quintile and the highest income quintile (see Chart below). A 1% increase in household income is predicted to lead to a 5.1% increase in vocabulary score. We can see the social gradient in results of educational tests at age just 3 years old in the Chart below.
Chart: Average ability scores of 3 year olds by household income quintile
By age 13, the educational inequality divide has grown even more acute with a 1% increase in household income predicted to lead to a 6.5% increase in verbal scores, a 5.2% increase in numerical scores and a 5.8% increase in the total Drumcondra test scores.
Educational inequalities for children are a manifestation of, and result from, economic inequality in society. They are a mechanism by which wider societal inequality is reproduced and reinforced as those with higher incomes and wealth use their multiple advantages to achieve higher outcomes.
We can see how this affects children and various inequalities reinforce themselves and worsen inequality for some children. For example, children aged 13 from lower income households have a three times higher rate of long-term school absenteeism than children from the top income decile.
Those in lower income households also tend to spend less time on homework and get less parental support than those in higher income households
This has obvious impacts on educational outcomes for children from lower income households and the negative impact of inequality on children’s sense of self-worth and wellbeing by the time they reach aged 13 is profoundly damaging to their expectations for their educational future (and ultimately life/employment opportunities and outcomes).
For example, only 36% of children at age 13 from the bottom income decile expect to achieve a third level education in contrast to 65% of children from the top income decile.
Chart: Expected highest level of education for children (13 years) by income decile
With the result that by third level we can see a significant level of inequality in levels of attendance of university by income and social class background.
Finally, it is important to consider the spatial element to economic inequality. Children growing up in disadvantaged areas face multiple inequalities in comparison to children growing up in more affluent areas. These include substandard housing, poorer quality community facilities, local services and amenities, higher levels of anti-social behaviour and higher levels of poverty, unemployment and economic deprivation.
Tomorrow, in the second part of this blog, I will look at inequalities in health and housing that affect children and provide analysis of causes and potential solutions.
You can access the full report here:Cherishing All Equally 2016