By: Cooper, K., Stewart, K.

Child Ind Res (2020)

Review written by: David Westlake

What question does this study focus on? 

It is well known that children resident in lower income households fare worse on a wide range of outcomes, and several interventions have tried to address this. However, we don’t know how far this can be explained just by lack of money, or whether associated disadvantages such as lower social and cultural capital, or stress caused by financial difficulties, are more explanatory. This distinction is important because, as the authors point out, policymakers might be able to change family income relatively easily by adjusting tax and benefits or by other means. If money is itself a key factor, then this should have a positive impact. 

How did they study it?

In this paper the researchers systematically reviewed studies that might be expected to provide causal insights. This meant they included experimental and quasi-experimental studies, such as Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs), and some other types of quantitative research. Reviewing a large cache of research is a good approach to unpicking some of the complexity, and the study had a wide timeframe going back to 1988. The main child outcomes of interest were cognitive development and school achievement; social, behavioural and emotional development; and physical health. Fifty-four studies made it through the selection process to be included in the review.

What did they find?

The review concluded that income itself is a causal factor in child outcomes, and not just something that is correlated with other types of disadvantage. This effect was seen in the majority of studies included, and the evidence was strongest in relation to cognitive and educational development, but also positively predictive of social, behavioural and emotional indicators. There was a more mixed picture in relation to child health outcomes. Interestingly, the study also identified some potential mediating factors, including “Consistently significant positive effects [linking income and] maternal mental health, parenting and the home environment”. This leads the authors to conclude that there is support for both the idea that money helps families buy things that promote child welfare (e.g. healthy food, learning materials), and the theory that reduced financial stress for parents creates better emotional environments for children. Referred to in the literature as the ‘family stress model’, this second idea suggests that a parent who is less worried about money may be have the mental and emotional capacity to spend more quality time with their children.

What are the implications? 

Like many reviews in this area, this one is limited by the amount and nature of the studies it includes. There were relatively few studies that met the inclusion criteria, and nearly half were from the USA. This means our understanding of this area will benefit from more research into the role of financial resources and studies from different countries and settings. The national context is even more important for this area than others, because countries vary markedly in terms of levels of welfare and state support available – which of course impacts family finances directly. 

This study makes an important contribution to our understanding of low income and child welfare outcomes, and it fits within a wider body of research on the role of inequalities and services for children and families. It suggests interventions based around material and financial help for families may be well placed to make a difference. This is consistent with our own evaluation of Devolved Budgets in three local authorities which was published last year.

Review written by

Profile photo of David Westlake who wrote this article review

David Westlake