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Improving health
Previously NHS Health Scotland

Impact of child poverty

Children and families living and growing up in poverty and low-income households experience many disadvantages. These can have negative health and social consequences during childhood and into adulthood.

Here you can find information on the impact of child poverty and the inequalities it creates.

  • Children and families living in poverty suffer greater health and social inequalities than their better off peers.
  • The negative impacts of poverty on children start before birth and accumulate across the life course. 
  • Poverty has negative impacts on children’s health, social, emotional and cognitive development, behaviour and educational outcomes.
  • Children born into poverty are more likely to experience a wide range of health problems, including poor nutrition, chronic disease and mental health problems.
  • Poverty puts an additional strain on families, which can lead to parental mental health and relationship problems, financial problems and substance misuse. This can have a negative impact on parenting behaviours which impact children’s outcomes.
  • Higher educational attainment and skills are associated with substantially higher earnings and employment prospects for individuals and future generations.

Poorer health and wellbeing 

There are several ways in which living in poverty can lead to poorer health outcomes in children, as well as into adulthood. 

Being exposed to some or all of the key factors below, as well as the accumulation of exposure over time, can adversely impact on child development and health outcomes.

  • Limited money for everyday resources - including good quality housing.
  • Stress of living in poverty.
  • Unhealthy lifestyles.
  • Poorer education and employment opportunities.

Children’s experience of poverty can also lead to bullying, or feelings of exclusion, as they may have fewer friends and less access to the social activities of their peers.

You can find out more about this in our briefing, 'Child Poverty and low income: health impact and health inequalities'.

We have also created an e-learning module to raise awareness of child poverty in Scotland and how it can impact on children and young people’s health and wellbeing. It includes five sections and takes about two and a half hours to complete.

Health inequalities

When considering health inequalities, children growing up in poverty or in the most deprived areas are at greater risk of poorer health outcomes than children from better off families or from more affluent areas. 

This can be seen in 

  • higher infant mortality rate
  • low birthweight
  • risk of being overweight or obese
  • not being breastfed
  • tooth decay
  • unintentional injury
  • poorer general health and mental wellbeing
  • teenage pregnancy. 

Poverty is also a risk factor for experiencing adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Having high numbers of ACEs has been found to be related to deprivation with a higher proportion of people in the most deprived areas reporting ACEs.

You can find out more about this on our ACEs page.

Educational outcomes

Children from low income households and disadvantaged areas tend to have worse outcomes than their better-off peers in terms of cognitive development and school achievement. This can impact upon educational outcomes. 

Although many children living in disadvantaged circumstances do well in school, there is a clear gradient in educational attainment by deprivation, and a persistent gap between the most and least deprived areas. 

From as early as primary one and right through to leaving school, children from deprived areas tend to do worse in terms of early Curriculum for Excellence or doing well in reading, writing and numeracy.

However, there are many factors that can positively impact on educational attainment for children experiencing poverty. These include

  • parental engagement with a child’s education
  • good quality preschool education
  • extra-curricular support during school time.

You can find out more about this in our review of health and wellbeing interventions in a school setting.