Effects of low family income on children

Getty Thinkstock

People who grew up in poor families often say they didn't realise that their family was poor and that all they needed was each other to be happy. For these people, trips to the cinema, designer clothes and a big house just weren't necessary to create pleasant childhood memories.

This may be true for many people, but current research shows that a family's income affects all aspects of a child's life. According to the Child Poverty Action Group one in three children in the UK live below the poverty line.

Child care

According to a study conducted by the Urban Institute, more than two thirds of children ages 5 and under from low income families spend a significant amount of time in child care each week. This is important because the quality of child care available to low income families is much worse than that available to higher income families, and the quality of the child care affects the child's development. High quality, centre-based care is expensive and is not an option for many low income families. Instead, they turn to informal, sometimes unregulated child care.

There are government programs to improve and fund early childhood education, but these programs do not work with the hectic working schedule of low income parents and employer-provided childcare is a taxable benefit in the UK. In other words, low income families often have difficulty accessing support systems that help them balance work and family life. As a result, the children of low income families are not given the same opportunities as their middle class counterparts.


There is an educational gap between low income and higher income children. Children from low income families tend to do poorer on tests, have a lower graduation rate, and are less likely to attend and complete college.

The achievement gap can be narrowed if states provide additional funding to education authorities that serve low income students. Current research suggests that school funding is related to student success. In order to significantly reduce the academic success gap between students of different income levels, poor catchment areas need over twice the funding that is required by schools educating higher income students. This money can go towards early childhood education programs, reduced class sizes and supplementary learning programs to give low income students the boost they need to succeed.


Poverty significantly affects a child's brain development. When comparing the brains of 9- to 10-year-old children from low income and high income families, the prefrontal cortex showed as much of a difference between the income levels as a patient who has had a stroke. This area of the brain controls problem solving and higher-order thinking, so this finding is very significant. Poverty affects a child's IQ, brain function and behaviour. Researchers have also discovered that the neural systems of poor children develop differently from those of middle and upper class children, and this affects the child's language development, ability to remember details and ability to pay attention in school. By the age of 3, a middle class child has twice the working vocabulary as a poor child.


Children from low income families may also suffer from malnutrition, a condition in which their body is either not getting enough healthy food or too much unhealthy foods. Unhealthy, processed foods are less expensive than their healthy counterparts and are readily available. This makes it more likely that poor families will purchase these foods. Many inner city corner shops do not stock fresh fruits and vegetables either, which intensifies the problem. While under-nutrition is not a common problem in the UK, over-nutrition is. A poor family is much more likely to buy a large amount of cheap, unhealthy food that will feed their family than a small amount of nutritious food that will leave them hungry. Obesity, vitamin deficiency and healthy problems may result.