Inequality Matters

Addressing Children’s Outcomes

Kate Bell provides analysis of new research that shows it’s not just poverty that affects children’s outcomes—it’s inequality, too.

James Purnell, Britain's Work and Pensions secretary, fired the opening shot in a debate over how to tackle child poverty in the United Kingdom. New research shows that inequality as well as poverty is linked to children's well-being. (AP/Sang Tan)
James Purnell, Britain's Work and Pensions secretary, fired the opening shot in a debate over how to tackle child poverty in the United Kingdom. New research shows that inequality as well as poverty is linked to children's well-being. (AP/Sang Tan)

Tackling child poverty is high on the political agenda in the United Kingdom. But new research shows that when it comes to children’s outcomes, it’s not just poverty that matters—it’s inequality, too.

The Guardian has been home to an increasingly heated debate about how best to tackle poverty in the United Kingdom. The opening salvo was fired by Work and Pensions secretary James Purnell, in an article arguing that only Labour would tackle child poverty, and promoting the government’s planned welfare reforms. The Conservative Party spokesperson for these issues, Chris Grayling, wrote back, arguing that their approach of focusing on the “underlying” causes of poverty such as drug and alcohol addiction would do more than a Labour policy of increasing expenditure.

Conservative economic spokesman George Osborne raised the stakes, saying that a Conservative approach would use the power of the market to spread “fairness and opportunity,” and critiquing what he sees as a Labour policy overly focused on redistribution. But the latest entry into the debate by Brendan Barber, head of the Trades Union Congress—the United Kingdom’s federation of labor unions—argues that if politicians want to improve children’s outcomes, the issue of inequality will have to be put center stage.

TUC cites new research showing that across countries, both inequality and poverty are strongly related to children’s outcomes. Measures of national income, however, show little correlation with child well-being—it’s not the richest countries that are best for children to grow up in, but those that share their riches more evenly.

Last year’s UNICEF report on child well-being in rich countries saw the United Kingdom and United States occupying the bottom two places in the table. In an article for the British Medical Journal, researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett investigated the links between these rankings and the level of child poverty, income inequality, and income per capita across 23 countries, including most of Europe, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan. The results were striking: Both poverty and inequality were closely (and negatively) linked with child well-being—including measures of child health and safety, infant mortality, obesity amongst children, and children who had been bullied—but average income was not.

The results were equally striking when the researchers repeated them for the United States. Comparing 50 states and the District of Columbia, they found that:

“Income inequality at the state level was significantly correlated with rates of teenage births, juvenile homicides, infant mortality, low birth weight, child overweight, mental health problems, and high school dropouts as well as with worse educational scores. States with higher average incomes had significantly fewer teenage births and fewer children dropping out of high school, but they did no better than poorer states on the other six measures of child wellbeing.”

Measures of inequality in the United Kingdom show that the gap between the top tenth of the population and the bottom has roughly doubled since 1979, although income growth has been more evenly distributed over the past decade. Measures for the United States are no less striking. Between 1979 and 2004, the poorest fifth saw their after-tax income rise by 9 percent, the richest fifth by 69 percent, and the top 1 percent by 176 percent, according to the Brookings Institution report on economic mobility. And research from the Center for American Progress shows that wealth inequality is even greater than that of income.

Tackling poverty is vital for children’s experiences today and their prospects for tomorrow. But relying on income growth alone appears to do little to improve children’s outcomes. It’s not just the existence of poverty, but the gap between the top and the bottom that matters. Addressing this inequality needs to be a key part of the debate.

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