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Why businesses have a responsibility to tackle childhood poverty

Carey Oppenheim, Nuffield Foundation

For most parents, bringing a baby into the world and nurturing a young child brings both great joy and intense love, but it also comes with many changes, and sometimes stress, pressure and anxiety. The challenges are much greater for families who are struggling to make ends meet. In the UK today, more than one in three children in families where the youngest child is under five are living in poverty.

Children are markedly more likely to experience poverty than adults or pensioners and families with young children are most at risk. This is due to a combination of factors including the costs of raising children and that households with children are less likely to have two parents in full-time work. The latest figures show that there are 4.3 million children in the UK living in poverty: two thirds (69%) live in working families and just over a third (36%) live in families where the youngest child is under five. 

Single parents, large families, people living in families with a disabled person, and people from ethnic minorities are more likely to experience not just poverty, i.e. not having enough resources such as money, housing, or food to meet an individual’s maternal and social needs, but also very deep poverty, which refers to people whose income is at least 40% below the median income in the UK.  

The harm that poverty can inflict begins during pregnancy and early childhood, leading to early disadvantages that can impact throughout children’s lives. Poverty affects young children’s experiences directly, as parents and carers have less money to meet their material and social needs. In recent years, the increased costs of providing basic essentials – food, warmth, lighting, nappies, baby food, clothing – has created acute pressure for many families.  

Poverty is also time consuming. Research has shown that parents spend vast amounts of time managing on a very tight budget, which leaves less time for interacting with their children, whether it be bath time or reading a bedtime story. Combined with an extensive body of evidence on how poverty causes wide ranging psychological distress from mild anxiety through to feelings and thoughts of suicide, parents and carers often do not have the mental space to be attentive and responsive to a child’s needs. Economic stress – poverty, hardship, debt – can also directly and indirectly affect family relationships, both between parents and with children.  

All this can hinder a child’s physical, cognitive, and social and emotional development at a critical time when the foundations for their lifelong learning, health and wellbeing are being laid. The gaps in development between disadvantaged and advantaged children emerge very early on. By the time a child reaches 11 months, there are gaps in communication and language skills, and by the age of three inequalities in children’s cognitive and social and emotional skills are evident. Delayed development can lead to a lack of school readiness and, in turn, lower educational attainment which is associated with a host of outcomes in later life such as physical health, mental wellbeing, employment and life satisfaction.  

Addressing early childhood poverty is a vital part of the jigsaw of support needed for young children to thrive. Research has identified protective factors that help to reduce the detrimental effects of poverty – parental mental wellbeing, positive parent-child interaction, wider family and neighbourhood support, access to high quality early education, and financial and housing stability.  

We can each reflect on how we as individuals, family and community members, and businesses can play a role in how we can help to address the economic challenges facing families with young children and support them to establish deep roots from which they can grow and flourish.