Persistent poverty harms the cognitive development of children
, but family instability has no effect.
There is much evidence of the negative effects of both poverty and family structure on child development, particularly persistent poverty and adverse living conditions. Poverty and family instability are linked as poverty affects families economically and socially and can increase the risk of relationship break-ups. However, less is known about their relative impact on children's cognitive functioning.
Researchers analysed data collected from almost 19,000 British children and their families when the children were 9 months, 3 years and 5 years old. The data, collected from parents through interviews and questionnaires and direct assessment of children's cognitive ability, provided insight into family poverty, family transitions, family demographics and housing conditions.
Most of the families (62 percent) were not poor at any of the three assessment points, but 13 percent did experience persistent poverty. Most parents (57 percent) were in a stable marriage, 13 percent were living continuously with the same partner and 8 percent were continuously single.
It was found that children in stable two-parent families showed higher cognitive abilities than those in single -parent families or those who experienced a change in living arrangements. It was also found that children growing up in persistent poverty scored lower on cognitive tests than those who had never experienced poverty.
After the researchers accounted for factors like child characteristics, family poverty and family demographics (parental education and mother's age), no link was found between family structure / instability and a child's cognitive ability, but persistent poverty did have a strong and significant negative effect on a child's cognitive functioning at 5 years of age.
The researchers conclude that persistent poverty is a crucial risk factor undermining children's cognitive development; more so than family instability.