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The socioeconomic impact of childhood adversity

  • Background

    Researchers at University College London (UCL) conducted a population based study to examine the association between abuse and neglect during childhood and socioeconomic outcomes at age 50. The study was published in Paediatrics in December 2016 and the full paper is available open access.

  • Objective

    The objective of the study was to establish associations between maltreatment during childhood and economic circumstances during adulthood, at the age of 50.

  • Methods

    The researchers followed the lives of 8,076 British people born in 1958 until the age of 50. Economic circumstances at age 50 are important as this is close to an individual’s peak earning capacity in the UK, and poor outcomes at this age can indicate economic hardship and poor health during old age.

    The study examined the relationship between abuse and neglect with a range of indicators of poor socioeconomic outcomes. These included long term sickness absence from work, not in employment, education or training (NEET), receipt of income support, financial insecurity and poor qualifications. The study also examined mental health and cognition at age 16 as mediating factors between child maltreatment and socioeconomic circumstances in adulthood.

  • Discussion

    This study found that the impact of childhood maltreatment persists over decades, with significant costs both to the individual and society. The study found that childhood maltreatment is associated with poor socioeconomic outcomes at age 50 across a range of indicators, including long term absence from work due to sickness and lacking assets. The risk of poor socioeconomic outcomes was greater for those who had experienced multiple types of neglect and abuse. Children who had experienced neglect were 70% more likely to have time off work as a result of long term sickness and not to own their home at age 50, compared to those who had not experienced maltreatment during childhood.

    In cases of neglect, poor reading and mathematics skills at age 16 were identified as a mediating factor for poor socioeconomic outcomes as an adult. This finding supports investment in the cognitive skills and development of children who have been neglected alongside the prevention of maltreatment, which remains an important but challenging goal. The results of the study provided little evidence that cognitive abilities at age 16 have a mediating effect in cases of abuse. The authors suggest that further research is warranted to confirm their results, to investigate additional mechanisms of child maltreatment – adult outcome associations, and to inform the direction of effective remedial work with children who have experienced maltreatment.  

    Pinto Pereira, S. M., Li, L. and Power, C. (2016) Child Maltreatment and Adult Living Standards at 50 Years Paediatrics 139:1