Tracing the consequences of child poverty - reflections from co-author Andrew Dawes on findings from 15 years of research

After several years in the making, ‘Tracing’, as we authors have come to call the volume, is published. What a journey it has been! Tracing draws on over 800 research papers, fact sheets, country reports and other outputs generated since the inception of the Young Lives study in 2001.

When asked by Jo Boyden to assist in this venture, I asked myself how on earth do we extract and synthesise Young Lives findings gathered over 16 years, to produce a concise account of the impact of poverty on children’s lives in four countries, that is at once scientifically rigorous, of interest to researchers in diverse fields, and perhaps most importantly, provides evidence that assists policy makers in their efforts to improve children’s lives?

Much of the answer lies in the deep knowledge of the project held by authors Jo Boyden and Paul Dornan who together with the Young Lives team, knew where to drill down to construct a powerful story of what matters in children’s lives both in relation to compounding disadvantage or supporting positive growth and development. 

Both the Young Lives International Advisory Board and the ‘Tracing’ Advisory Group, or TAG as we called it, challenged us to go beyond the ‘business as usual’ child poverty story and mine for nuggets that would shift the policy and intervention discourse. 

Taking this advice, we were able to demonstrate that while particular aspects of disadvantage are essential to address (e.g. under-nutrition; poor quality schooling), it is intersecting inequalities and disadvantages that are particularly powerful in undermining human development from before infancy through adolescence and youth. These include the poorest and rural children who are also members of marginalised groups (e.g. ethnic, caste or language), with less educated parents. Policies therefore need to pay particular attention to children who face these intersecting challenges.

A further example of the impact of intersecting disadvantage is evident from Latent Growth Modelling (LGM) an approach I discuss in an article here with Colin Tredoux. In Tracing, LGM traces the consequences of disadvantage in early and middle childhood and adolescence for the development of maths and language skills (vocabulary and reading comprehension). Modelling shows how children from poorer backgrounds with less educated caregivers either don't attend a preschool or attend one that is likely poor quality. That missed opportunity is associated with weaker quantitative and language skills by age five enduring through childhood.

A much-overlooked consequence of poverty is its potential impact on the psychological well-being of primary caregivers. LGM shows how the mental state of caregivers affected by poverty is related to child growth in the early years; those more negatively affected are likely to have children with stunted growth. That in turn compromises cognitive skills in both early and middle childhood. New challenges emerge in early adolescence for children who have to work to assist poor families - they have less time for schooling and studying. So a poor start compounded by other demands in later years contributes to poor skills development by adolescence. This in turn is likely to compromise education outcomes and ultimately the chance to enter further education, training and decent work. 

Patterns such as this are evident throughout the Young Lives data and are what we refer to as Developmental Cascades, a term drawn from the work of Ann Masten and Dante Cicchetti  As LGM shows, cascades occur both within and across stages of childhood development and build upon one another so that their effects accumulate to shape developmental outcomes over time.

For example, the study measured children’s height for their age at each Round. This enabled us to discover a very important nugget; evidence of both growth recovery and faltering during middle childhood. A proportion of children whose growth was stunted in early childhood showed normal growth in middle childhood, while some who had shown normal early growth, were stunted later. Thus early growth status is not necessarily fixed, indicating the potential for remedial intervention later in development. Particularly important is evidence that recovery is associated with cognitive gains in some children. 

Another example comes from the qualitative data analysed by Gina Crivello and Ginny Morrow. The TAG encouraged us to seek examples of children who were ‘bucking the trend’ of expected negative outcomes despite their disadvantages. What was it about these children and their circumstances that made the difference, and how could this information be used to provide more enabling environments for children placed at risk by poverty? Gina and Ginny’s work, discussed here, found that it was a combination of mutually reinforcing factors such as child characteristics and enabling environments in the family and beyond which together diverted children at risk into positive pathways. They also found that to maintain this positive Development Cascade, the children needed sustained support through young adulthood. 

In sum, Tracing has synthesized evidence from across the study and combined it with life course longitudinal analyses that permit examination of the cumulative influence of sources of risk, protection and opportunity from across childhood and through adolescence. This approach has allowed us to consider the implications of these findings for child-focused policy and programmes as low- and middle-income countries strive to overcome intergenerational poverty and inequality and meet the challenges of the Sustainable Development Goals. We will share Tracing’s findings with policy makers and practitioners in government and non-government settings to help inform debates on how best to secure children’s well-being, development and rights. 

Tracing the consequences of child poverty is available digitally and in print  For news of Young Lives you can follow us on Twitter @yloxford, Facebook, and check our website


Consequences of forced migration during early childhood on cognitive well-being in later childhood in Andhra Pradesh, India

Mobility and migration
Early childhood development
Journal Article

This article published in the International Journal of Population Studies 2017, 3 (2) uses Young Lives data from India to explore the consequences of forced migration during early childhood on cognitive well-being in later childhood.

The authors' abstract reads:

Unlike its short-term impact on consumption and income, forced migration is expected to deliver a permanent shock to the overall well-being of households, specifically children in the stage of infancy. Studies on the effect of forced migration on child cognitive well-being are few in number. Therefore, the present study is intended to examine the consequences of forced migration during infancy on child cognition at later age. We hypothesized that the effect of forced migration on child cognitive well-being can be mitigated by social support. The study used longitudinal data from three waves of the Young Lives Study (YLS) conducted in 2002, 2006–2007, and 2009 in the state of Andhra Pradesh, India. We used bivariate and multivariate regression models to analyze the consequences of forced migration in early childhood on the cognitive well-being in later childhood. The information on forced migration was collected in Wave 1 (at age 1), whereas the information on the cognitive well-being of the children was collected in Wave 3 (at age 8).

Child cognitive well-being was measured using scores obtained by the children on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT), math, Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA), and memory tests. The results of the bivariate analysis show that the mean PPVT, math, EGRA, and memory scores obtained by children from the migrated households were lower than those obtained by children from the non-migrated households. Results of the multivariate linear regression models also show that children from the migrated households were statistically less likely to achieve higher scores on math (coefficient: -2.008, 95% C.I.-3.108, -0.908), EGRA (coefficient: -0.746, 95% C.I.-1.366, -0.126), and memory (coefficient: -0.503, 95% C.I. -0.834, -0.173) as compared to children from the non-migrated households.

Our findings also indicate that the effect of forced migration on child cognitive well-being was not mitigated by social support. Findings of this study conclude that forced migration during infancy has a significant effect on child cognitive well-being at later age. Therefore, interventions should be made, paying attention to the most vulnerable children who were displaced during critical development ages.

Commitment to early education in India

Last month, Galli Galli Sim Sim, the Hindi language adaptation of Sesame Street (known as Sesame Street Workshop in India, of which I am a board member) invited me to share my aspirations for early education reform. They asked what I would like to see prioritised, in response to which I identified an urgency to ‘make early education a justiciable right’.

It is time we recognised the immense importance of early years education as the foundation for all future learning. In India, change must be made in line with recommendations from the 2015 Law Commission Report, which states that the Right to Education Act should be made mandatory ‘with a view to prepare children above the age of three years for elementary education and to provide early childhood care and education for all children until they complete the age of six years, the appropriate Government shall make necessary arrangement for providing free pre-school education for such children.’

But there are barriers to meeting this ask. While the State clearly outlines an ‘endeavour to provide early childhood care and education for all children until they complete the age of six years’ (Article 22), the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE), which came into effect from April 2010 failed to make education for children between three and six years of age a legal right.

I share this call for change in line with my role as Country Director of the Young Lives Study in India. Young Lives is a longitudinal study of childhood poverty that has conducted five survey rounds in India since 2002, gathering important evidence to add to the body of knowledge demonstrating that early years investment has long-term benefits, particularly for the most disadvantaged children. 

Analysis of our data shows that pre-school variables (type of school, age of entry, and caregivers’ perception of schooling) have strong associations with the cognitive outcomes and subjective well-being of children at the age of 12. A recent paper highlighted that children who attended private pre-schools are more than twice as likely to finish secondary school than those children who did not attend pre-school.

When comparing the four study countries of Young Lives (Ethiopia, Peru, Vietnam, and Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, India), we see that children across both cohorts (an Older Cohort born in  1994 and an Older Cohort born in 2001) who engaged in pre-school education performed better in numeracy tests at all ages regardless of the type of pre-school attended. Those who had attended pre-school also had higher levels of pride at eight years of age than those who did not. This is further corroborated by this year’s World Development Report which highlights that children who attend pre-school have higher attendance and better achievement in primary school.

The National Early Childhood Care and Education Policy recognises early childhood care and education as the foundation for all future learning and as a sorely neglected area. Given the importance of standardising quality across institutions catering to children between the ages of three and six years, it is time that a national policy was effectively implemented through a decentralised mechanism to ensure high standards across both the private and public sector.

The Global Education Monitoring Report stated that despite a global focus on early education thanks, in part, to Sustainable Development Goal target 4.2, only 69% of children globally participated in organised learning at the pre-primary level, ranging from 95% in Latin America and the Caribbean and in Europe and Northern America, to 42% in sub-Saharan Africa.

Given that a large number of children in India are growing up in disadvantaged contexts, which may inhibit them from developing to their full potential, early childhood education should be viewed as a key intervention to compensate for environmental deficits, so supporting and strengthening child development. The importance of early years education must be recognised in light of its long-term benefits, in line with recommendations made this January by the Central Advisory Board of Education Committee to extend the Right to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE, 2009) to the under-six population.

To find out more about Young Lives’ education research, please follow @yloxford on Twitter with #YLEducation. You may also be interested in our involvement this week in the 62nd Annual Meeting of the Comparative and International Education Society titled ‘Re-Mapping Global Education South-North Dialogue’. More details are available here.


The Association Between Unintended Births and Poor Child Development in India: Evidence from a Longitudinal Study

Early childhood development
Reproductive health
Journal Article

Evidence on the association between unintended births and poor child development in developing countries is limited. The authors used data from three waves of the Young Lives study on childhood poverty conducted in Andhra Pradesh in 2002, 2006–07, and 2009 to examine the association between unintended births and poor child development in India.

Multivariable linear regression models were used to examine the association between unintended births and four indicators of child development—height-for-age Z-score (HAZ), Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT) score, Mathematics Achievement Test (MAT) score, and Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) test score. The Propensity Score Matching (PSM) technique was also used to analyze data. Children who were reported as unintended at birth had significantly lower HAZ, PPVT, and EGRA scores compared with those who were reported as intended. PSM results support the findings from the multivariable linear regressions.

The findings provide evidence on the association between unintended births and poor child development in India.  Future studies must take into account the unobserved heterogeneity that the study could not address fully.

The Association Between Unintended Births and Poor Child Development in India: Evidence from a Longitudinal Study.