Case Study

Child Poverty in Scotland: Health Impact and Health Inequalities

NHS Health Scotland
Public Health Scotland (
Publication Year:
April 30, 2020
  • SDG 1 - No Poverty
  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-Being
  • SDG 4 - Quality Education
  • SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities


Children and families living and growing up in poverty and low-income households experience many disadvantages which can have negative health and social consequences throughout their life. This can lead to children who experience poverty having poorer health, developmental and educational outcomes than their more affluent peers, creating inequalities. 


Poverty and child health

There is good evidence that children living and growing up in poverty have worse health outcomes than their more affluent peers. 

Families living on a low income may not have access to sufficient resources to lead a healthy lifestyle, including access to affordable healthy food, good-quality housing, adequate home heating and affordable social and cultural opportunities. These can directly impact on children’s physical and mental wellbeing. In fact, 32% of children aged 2-15 in the lowest income households are at risk of being overweight or obese, compared to one in four (25%) in the highest income households. Furthermore, children aged 4–14 years in the lowest income households were four times more likely to have poorer mental wellbeing as those in the highest income households (13% compared to 3%).  


Poverty, child development and attainment 

Children from lower income households tend to have worse outcomes than their better-off peers in terms of cognitive development and school achievement as well as social and behavioural development.

The cumulative effect of living in poverty and exposure to risk factors, as well as the timing of exposure, whether in early childhood or adolescence, can have a long-lasting impact on brain structure and formation. There is research suggesting that experiencing poverty at a young age can have an effect on brain development specifically in areas of the brain that are responsible for language, executive function and memory. For example, in Scotland, a study found that at the age of five, children from higher-income families were 13 months ahead in their knowledge of vocabulary and 10 months ahead in their problem solving compared to those children from lower-income families.


Child poverty and how it affects adult health

Growing up in poverty, continual exposure to risk factors and poorer educational outcomes can also lead to poorer health in adulthood. In addition to experiencing higher rates of adult mortality, people with experience of child poverty tend to have higher rates of physical disability, clinical depression and premature death. This can partly be explained because the experience of financial hardship or poverty in childhood increases the risk of social and economic disadvantage in early adulthood, including:

  • lower earnings, higher risk of unemployment or spending time in prison (men) and becoming a lone parent (women)
  •  lower educational attainment, linked to lower birth weight and more health problems in childhood, which are more common among children in low-income households or living in deprived neighbourhoods
  • homelessness

In addition to being linked to poorer adult health in their own right, all these factors are associated with lower adult household incomes. This is problematic because adults with low incomes are at greater risk of worse outcomes in general including poorer health, lower life expectancy and lower well-being than individuals with higher income. 


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