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International evidence suggests tackling the underlying causes of early years' poverty is key to improve short and long-term health outcomes

Published: 21 February 2024

2.46 million children under the age of 15 are living in relative income poverty in the UK. Poverty rates have remained high in Wales over the past two decades with children consistently at the highest risk of living in poverty of any age group. The cost of living crisis has increased the risk of negative health impacts of poverty. The latest International Horizon Scanning and Learning Report from the Policy and International Health WHOCC Directorate at Public Health Wales looks at the impact of poverty on babies, children and young people and summarises international approaches to prevent and/or reduce it. 

Children are disproportionately affected by extreme poverty and their health and wellbeing are more vulnerable to its effects both in the short- and long-term. Poverty in childhood can lead to poor health outcomes and into adulthood, such as asthma, obesity and poor mental health. It is associated with low educational attainment, poor socioeconomic outcomes and poor living standards in adulthood, crossing generations. Poverty-related stigma in children has a significant impact not only on mental health and self-esteem but also on the uptake of support for example free school meals, social security, emergency welfare and support with debt. 

International evidence shows that a multi-agency approach is essential involving a range of partners, such as government, local authorities, voluntary and community organisations, housing agencies, landlords, education, mental health services and the private sector. It works most effectively when it is underpinned by a shared understanding of harms and the priority actions needed to address it. 

The report features successful approaches and potential solutions to tackle poverty and its negative impacts on babies, children and young people. Universal child benefits which give cash transfers to parents to spend how they see fit can address and improve children’s health and well-being. Social protection programmes connect families with healthcare, nutritious food and quality education to give all children a fair chance in life.  

Leah Silva, Senior Policy Officer said,” Shifting public spending towards early intervention and prevention is critical for developing more effective and efficient policies to tackle child poverty. “ 

“Preventing poverty among babies, children and young people is most effectively achieved through integrated strategies that combine support for parents to access decent employment as well as support for children to access opportunities for a healthy life. Enabling parents to access paid work and quality services, such as pre-school education, health and housing, can have a positive impact. It helps parents avoid stress, improves their access to resources and their ability to adopt and maintain healthy behaviours.  It also allows children to better access essential goods and services.” 

“We are working closely with stakeholders and partners across Wales and internationally to identify evidence of what works, explore solutions and develop innovative approaches and tools to support Welsh Government to tackle poverty and to help reduce the long-lasting harmful impacts on health and wellbeing. “ 

The report highlights successful policies in Scotland and Slovenia. In Scotland both local and national approaches to prevent or reduce poverty are targeting the most at-risk groups (including children) and have focused on ensuring effective implementation and monitoring outcomes. Children in “persistent poverty” in Scotland dropped to 10% in 2019/20 compared to 14% in 2007/08. In Slovenia they have focused on harmonised childcare and social protection and centred their approach on families rather than on individual children. Their Child Guarantee National Action Plan focuses on areas which affect child poverty rates including care, education, health, nutrition and housing. 

Welsh Government do not have full (devolved) power over many policy areas which drive child poverty rates. Nevertheless, in January 2024, Welsh Government renewed the Child Poverty Strategy for Wales. Together with other legislation and policy levers, Wales has set a unique enabling environment to prioritise action to protect children against the impacts of poverty and tackle its underlying causes. 

More information:  

The International Horizon Scanning Report series provides a high-level summary of learning from real life experiences from selected countries, and from a variety of scientific and grey literature. The reports, which are published every two months, offer a brief snapshot of current evidence, policy and practice, sharing relevant country examples and international bodies’ guidance and principles.