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How do childhood circumstances affect poverty and deprivation as an adult?

How childhood factors affect educational attainment, income poverty and material deprivation

New analysis from ONS examines the extent to which the circumstances children grow up in affect their future life chances, using data for both the UK and other EU countries. In recent years there has been considerable research into the degree to which children born into poor families grow up to become poor adults. The findings have shown that the UK has a low level of earnings mobility across the generations, meaning that there is a strong relationship between the economic position of parents and that of their children. This analysis aims to help inform policy by showing the childhood factors that impact most on the intergenerational transmission of poverty and disadvantage.

Which childhood factors predict low educational attainment? 

Holding all other characteristics constant and equal, in the UK, father’s education level has the biggest impact on the likelihood low educational attainment. People are 7.5 times more likely to have a low educational outcome if their father has a low level of education, compared with a highly educated father.

People’s mother’s education level is also important though to a lesser degree; an individual is approximately 3 times as likely to have a low educational outcome if their mother has a low level of education.  Previous work has suggested that parental qualifications may impact on children’s educational attainment in a variety of ways, including through aspirations and genetic traits, as well as indirectly through the home learning environment and parental health behaviours (e.g. smoking, child nutrition, etc.). 

Parental education level also has the greatest impact on the likelihood of a low educational outcome across the other EU countries studied, though the extent of this transmission varies considerably. The effect is largest for the Southern European countries, as well as some Eastern European countries and Baltic States.

In the UK, there is also a relationship between educational outcomes and the number of adults and children living in the household, the employment status of the parents and the childhood household’s financial situation.  For example, holding all else equal, the odds of a low educational outcome are over one and a half times higher for those who grew up in a single adult household compared to households with two adults.

Which childhood factors predict relative low income poverty?

Educational attainment is the most important of the factors examined in explaining poverty in both the UK and the other EU countries studied. In the UK, those with a low level of educational attainment are almost five times as likely to be in poverty now as those with a high level of education.

Growing up in a workless household also appears to have an impact in the UK. Holding all else equal, those who lived in a workless household at age 14 are around one and a half times as likely to be in poverty compared with those where one adult was working. However, this specific effect of worklessness was identified as a significant factor in only one other EU country.

In the UK, the Individual’s assessment of their childhood household financial situation is not a significant predictor of poverty once educational attainment is accounted for. This suggests that household income during childhood mainly impacts future life chances through the educational attainment of the child. Previous work has suggested that this operates through parents investing in their children through the home environment (e.g. home learning activities, health and nutrition) and providing financial capital for schooling.

By contrast, in the Southern and Eastern European countries, these factors remain significant predictors of poverty even after controlling for educational attainment.

Which childhood factors predict severe material deprivation?

Material deprivation provides an estimate of people whose living conditions are affected by not being able to afford certain items. These include being able to pay their rent, mortgage, utility bills or loan repayments and keep their home adequately warm.

Educational attainment is the most important predictor of severe material deprivation in the UK and EU. Holding all else equal, in the UK, those with low attainment are 11 times as likely to be severely deprived as those with a high level of education.

The number of parents and children in the childhood household is also important. In the UK, those growing up in a single parent household are over twice as likely to be severely materially deprived as those who lived with both parents. The odds of severe material deprivation are twice as high for those who grew up in households with four or more children compared with a single child.

Parental employment has an impact on the deprivation status. The odds of severe material deprivation in adulthood are almost twice as high for those whose father was unemployed compared with those who worked in a managerial role. 

For the UK, there is no evidence of a relationship between severe material deprivation now and the financial situation of the household as a child once educational attainment is controlled for. However, childhood household income does appear to be of importance in Southern and Eastern European countries, as well as the Baltic States.

Where can I find out more about poverty?

This analysis was produced by the Household Income and Expenditure Analysis team as part of the  Public Policy Analysis Division at ONS. More information on poverty can be found in the Intergenerational transmission of disadvantage in the UK and EU release. If you’d like to find out more, please contact

Categories: People and Places, Housing and Households, Households, Living Conditions, Household Income and Expenditure, Low-income Households, People, Social Protection and Benefits, Low Income, Economy, Personal Finances, Personal Income and Wealth, Income Distribution of Individuals
Content from the Office for National Statistics.
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