Misunderstanding persistent poverty

The Government’s Child Poverty Strategy is based squarely on an argument that government has to break the cycle of poverty.

This Government is focused on breaking the cycle of disadvantage …  Children experiencing poverty face multiple disadvantages that often continue throughout their lives and are all too often continue on to the next generation.(p 17)

This is, more or less, a restatement of Keith Joseph’s idea of the ‘cycle of deprivation’ .  The Strategy explains:

We must continue with our mission to break the cycle of poor children going on to be poor adults. This process starts at the beginning of life and poor children are four times as likely to become poor adults as other children. (p 14)

The Strategy refers at both these points, and at three others, to research showing that poor children are four times more likely than others to be poor as adults.   The figure comes from a study published in 2006 by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.  Except that this is not really what the JRF study is about.  The authors of that study, Blanden and Gibbons, explain:

poor teenagers in the 1970s grew up to be poor because of more general family background disadvantages, in particular parental non-employment and low education – poverty itself had little or no direct effect over and above these teenage family factors. However, for teenagers in the 1980s, poverty had a direct effect on the chances of ending up in poverty, even when allowing for differences in these same aspects of family background.  … Our results find evidence of a significant persistence of poverty from teens to the early thirties and through to early middle age. Comparing the persistence of poverty from across the cohorts indicates that the strength of this persistence has approximately doubled (pp ix, 2).

The study is rather good.  Here is what they found (p 7):

Poor as teenagers Not poor as teenagers
Poor in their thirties (%)


Not poor in their thirties (%)


Poor in their thirties (%)


Not poor in their thirties (%)


Teenage boys mid 70s 18.9 81.2 10.1 89.9
Teenage girls mid 70s 18.6 81.5 5.3 94.7
Teenage boys mid 80s 28.8 71.2 16.9 83.1
Teenage girls mid 80s 23.7 76.3 8 92


That certainly does show that teenagers who are poor are more likely to be poor when they are adults.  But it also tells us that most poor teenagers do not become poor adults;  and that the risks of poverty becoming persistent grow when the economy is depressed, as it was in the 1980s.  Poverty is persistent across different periods of people’s lives for a relatively small proportion of the population – 1.4% of men, 3.1% of women.

The JRF study is concerned with the prospects of teenagers and the persistence of poverty into adulthood.   It is not, then,  a demonstration of the ‘cycle of deprivation’.  On the contrary, it points again to issues which have been shown repeatedly in the past:  that there is considerable movement in and out of poverty, that persistent poverty through a person’s lifetime is already relatively unusual, and that consequently transmission between generations is going to be more unusual still.  The authors note that “teenage poverty is much more important in determining poverty in adulthood than poverty in earlier childhood” and go so far as to suggest that “addressing the adulthood causes of poverty directly is likely to be much more beneficial over adults’ lifecycles than tackling poverty faced in childhood.”  (p 34)


Leave a Reply