There are clear links between childhood poverty and adult health. Even if one manages to escape from the situation of poverty as one grows into adulthood, a disadvantaged start in life can leave lasting health problems, both physical and psychological. Studies have shown that children living in poverty are less healthy in nearly every way than those in well-off families, and even small differences in economic and social status can have a significant effect on childhood health.

Disadvantaged from the start

Statistically, poor mothers are more likely to have underweight babies, and as their children grow, they are likely to be an average of three centimetres shorter than their better off counterparts. This is not genetic, but a failure to reach full height potential caused by factors such as inadequate nutrition and unsuitable living conditions.

As well as this initial handicap, poor children are also far more prone to such conditions as respiratory and gastrointestinal infections, nutritional deficiencies, dental problems and impaired eyesight. Again, nutrition and living conditions are mostly to blame, as poor families struggle to afford consistently healthy food in adequate amounts, and often live in homes that may be cold, damp, affected by mould and so on. Healthcare and suitable clothing are also harder to afford.

Psychological, emotional and developmental disorders should not be discounted either, often caused by the family stress that is an inevitable result of economic hardship. Finally, we must not forget that poor children likely live in a harsher environment with fewer basic amenities; statistically they are more likely to suffer childhood injuries in accidents.

The link to adult health

Medical conditions such as asthma, acquired in childhood, are hard to shake off even when one’s living situation is greatly improved. Similarly, physical strains on the young body can weaken it for life. Many disadvantaged children do not manage to escape the poverty trap and so remain poor and unhealthy. This obviously puts greater strain on the health service, with higher costs and higher numbers of individuals requiring more care in later life.

Tackling child poverty in the UK

Successive governments have vowed to combat or eradicate child poverty in the UK. In 1999, Tony Blair pledged to end child poverty in a generation by moving more families off benefits and into work. The coalition and current Conservative governments have adopted similar strategies, emphasising improvement to educational opportunities and living standards alongside encouragement to work full-time.

Nevertheless, charities such as the Prince’s Trust have taken up much of the burden. The Trust helped over 750,000 young people turn their lives around between its beginnings in 1976 and 2013. It is helped in this work by a number of generous donors, including Lord Laidlaw. Laidlaw has donated over £2m to the Trust. He also founded the Laidlaw Youth Project in 2004 to help disadvantaged youngsters in Scotland. Lord Laidlaw believes education is the best way out of poverty and has supported several Scottish schools as well as providing scholarship funds to universities.

There can be no doubt that poverty is linked to poor health, especially for children. Health problems in childhood can blight one for a lifetime, to the detriment of society as a whole. It is in all our interests to make childhood poverty history.

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