The impact of inequality on the lives of children

In Episode 1 of Series 4 of the DIAL Podcast we’re in discussion with Professor Kjell Salvanes and Dr Helen Wareham to talk about the impact of inequality on the lives of children. Kjell is the Principal Investigator on Growing up Unequal? The Origins, Dynamics and Lifecycle Consequences of Childhood Inequalities while Helen is a Research Associate on the project Social InEquality and its Effects on Child Development. 



Christine Garrington  0:00 

Welcome to DIAL a podcast where we tune in to inequality over the lifecourse. In Series 4 we’re looking at what’s been learned from DIAL projects about how and when inequality manifests in our lives, and what its longer-term consequences might be. For this first episode of the series, we’re delighted to be joined by Professor Kjell Salvanes and Dr. Helen Wareham to talk about the impact of inequality on the lives of children. Kjell heads up a project called Growing up Unequal? The Origins, Dynamics and Lifecycle Consequences of Childhood Inequalities, while Helen is a research associate on the project, Social InEquality and its Effects on child Development. So Helen, let’s start with the work that you and your team have been doing, looking at how young children are getting on and where inequalities might be occurring. I wonder if you can just start by explaining really a bit more about that the main focus of your project.

Helen Wareham  0:50 

So the main focus of SEED, that’s the acronym we have the project is to identify the mechanisms that social inequalities have on children’s, particularly their oral language development, and where we can try and identify what patterns there are in those inequalities, and the impact that it has, and whether those continue throughout children’s lives, and into adulthood as well. We’re a team of around 20 researchers, and we’re quite a broad range of specialists. So we have everything from speech therapists, developmental psychologists, but also medical staff, so ENT, ear, nose and throat specialists. And we’re spread across a number of countries, as well. So there’s a sort of focus around the countries involved in the project. So that’s Germany, the Netherlands and the UK, but also how we can look across those different countries and with broader collaborations with teams in France, the USA and Australia as well.

Christine Garrington  1:44 

So tell us a bit about what your team of 20 researchers in all these different countries has been actually doing over the last few years.

Helen Wareham  1:51 

In the three main countries for the project, we have really rich cohort data. So that’s where people have been interviewed they’ve there’s been kind of assessments that have happened with children, quite often from birth, and then they’ve been tracked at regular points throughout their lives. And these create really rich data sources. So we can look at what happens in children’s lives and how that then changes over, over time. Because we have this rich data, we’re able to look for really complex novel methods to try and understand the impact that inequalities have on children’s lives over time. And a lot of the work in our projects has been driven by PhD students. They’ve been looking at everything from the impact of slight and mild hearing loss on children. So my colleague Lisanne who’s based at Rostam University in the Erasmus Medical Centre there has found that there’s a significant impact on behavioural and school performance in children where they have the kind of slight or mild hearing loss, that’s all just so clinical, but just enough that it’s obviously then impacting their later life. And then my colleagues, Natalie and Wei have been looking at the interactions between parenting behaviours, and children’s language and behaviour development. And then my colleague, Claudia has been looking particularly at instances of sort of poverty and how that impacts on children’s language development.

Christine Garrington  3:12 

I know you’ve been very successful as well Helen in engaging more broadly with this work outside of the research and the academic community.

Helen Wareham  3:20

While we’ve kind of been doing a lot of this very in-depth research, we’ve also been able to engage more broadly with policymakers. Right at the start of this project, through our partnership with the Liveness Association, we were able to meet with some members of the EU Commission to discuss our project. We were given the opportunity as well to comment on some early care and education guidelines that the Commission we’re working on, and that that’s since then been published. So well, yeah, quite a bit of over the last few years I suppose.

Christine Garrington  3:50 

So I guess what we’re keen to know, what many people will be keen to know, that is, after all of this work, what would you say are sort of the key things that have emerged that that maybe we didn’t know, before, now, you’ve had this opportunity to delve so deeply into these issues.

Helen Wareham  4:04 

There’s sort of three key things that have come out of this. One has been, we’ve really been able to look really in depth at some of these relationships to kind of get an idea about how some of these relationships work. Some of the nuances I said, you know, about parental behaviours and interactions with children. And that’s been great. But then also, I think one of the really key things we found is just how persistent inequality is, and how significantly it impacts on families and then children’s lives and it’s a really it’s not just a persistent relationship. It’s it’s deeply entrenched, in that persistant-ness, it’s very slow to change that. So when we think about inequality, we often think we can make a change and it will kind of happened within someone’s lifetime, when we’re looking at, you know, what happens over the course of a child’s life. But actually to resolve certain inequalities, we’re really looking at some of this being a multi-generational approach that no matter how good a start, we sometimes we’re able to provide all the interventions we can deliver, that isn’t going to necessarily manifest in that child’s lifetime, it could be two, three generations later.

Christine Garrington  5:18 

Now that’s all really interesting. I think we’ll come back and talk about that a bit more in a second Helen. And Kjell, I’m guessing that quite a lot of what Helen has just said resonates with, with you. And I know there’s a real synergy between what Helen and her team have been looking at and what your projects been investigating. So let’s just take a step back here and get you to talk us through what it what it is that you’ve been trying to get to grips with.

Kjell Salvanes  5:39 

The background for our project is, you know, the increased inequality that we’re seeing in many countries. What we are trying to do is to understand, you know, increase in the socio-economic gradient, as they say, you know, the difference between different groups of people. And in particular, we’re interested in inequality, showing up both in education, but also, in terms of behaviour, you know, crime and stuff like that.

Christine Garrington  6:04 

Tell us a bit more about some of the specific things you were looking at, and why.

Kjell Salvanes  6:07 

Precisely we try to understand how shocks in a family are affecting their children in different stages of the life of a kid. The other part is, the importance of public policies, let’s say day-care policies, family leave policies, and how that can affect the development of children, and especially what economists call investment in human capital or education or their skills. And also how the dynamics in the families how that is important how, you know, let’s say there is an income shock, because Dad loses his job, how the dynamics in the family being changed, and the role or the mom and the dad, in affecting the children.

Christine Garrington  6:50 

I know, you have a fantastic team, largely economists from leading institutions in Norway, France and the UK, but you’re interested in broader things, including health, you know, particularly around child development and, and outcomes. So tell us a little bit more about how you’ve gone about looking into these questions.

Kjell Salvanes  7:10 

I mean, we are using data – very detailed registered data from Norway, and France, and also partly now from the UK. And we are combining these type of approaches using registered data, which sort of consists of generations of families, and also combining it with experimental work, interventions, and also surveys.

Christine Garrington  7:35 

and what does all this fabulous data and these methods enable you to do?

Kjell Salvanes  7:40

You can look at the whole development of kids from, you know, pre birth basically to, then we can look at adults, but you can also look at up to, let’s say, 60. A lot of what we have been doing is to try to distinguish between the impact of something that is happening early on. It could be a negative shock, it could be policy intervention, or it could be parental decisions early on preschool, you know, middle years of schooling, and then early teenage. We see a lot of differences, you know, before they start school. And then the question is how this interacts with what is happening in the, in the early and later school years. We looking at different types of skills. I mean, you know, so it could be, you know, more the cognitive types of school skills, but it could be also socio emotional skills, how you you know behave.

Christine Garrington  8:36

Indeed and can you talk us through what what’s emerged that you think is of particular interest?

Kjell Salvanes  8:42

You know, one of my colleagues at UCL Gabriella Conti, her work and partly together with us have been looking at early health outcomes for kids, and how that can predict the performance of kids when they are teenagers, but also as adults. So I think that part of the project has been very important. The second thing that I will speak a little bit is that, you know, one of the teams in in Paris, they have looked at training programmes for the children in daycare. So they have actually looked at an intervention among daycare teachers, and trying to set up a programme where they can teach language acquisition skills, you know, from the age of three months to three years. And that also seems to be have had a very positive effect, because, you know, language skills, or skills at the age of five seems to be very predictive of what is going to happen with children as adults. And the third thing that, you know, we’ll talk a little bit about a project that I’ve done myself where we look at the kids growing up that was born to teen moms, which is a big issue in many countries. In the UK, for instance, I think, you know, more than 20% of the kids are being born to teen moms. And how that effect their adult acquisition of human capital and how they how well they perform in the labour market. And what we find there. And I think this is a new finding is that it’s not only the mom that is important, I mean, usually in the literature, you find that this has a negative on average effect on the kids in their later life. What you find here is that the role of the dad is also extremely important. The matching, so to speak in the, in the non-marriage market here, you know, who they get the kids with, is also not without selection. So the selection of kids, for these kids is important. And the role of the dad is also extremely important, not only the mums, which of course, has strong policy implications.

Christine Garrington  10:54

Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, on that note, I’d sort of quite like to ask you both really, whether there’s a standout finding from, you know, the wide range of research that both projects have done that you think that everyone who’s interested in tackling inequality from as early as we possibly can, should know and understand. Kjell you want to kick us off?

Kjell Salvanes  11:14

Yes, I mean, we put together these three teams for some reasons, because the let’s say the family policies differs a lot across these three countries. The Norway is one of the Scandinavian countries have a very active family, family policies, parental leave since the mid 70s, and stuff like that, and also daycare coverage 100% now. France is a little bit in between and you know, and not so active family policy in the UK, I have to say so. So there are differences. And what we see is that the impact of family policies on child development seems to be very important. And I think that also has, of course, clear policy implications.

Christine Garrington  11:58

Yeah, Helen, is that I’m guessing that’s something that possibly resonates with with you and your project as well. But is there one particular thing that you think is, it’s really important that everybody takes away from all of this?

Helen Wareham  12:10

Yeah I think, particularly from our projects, and I think Kjell has been sort of saying this as well is about how important it is to realise that right from the start of children’s lives, it’s a vital time, you know, inequality doesn’t wait. It’s right there from the start. So I think, in tackling inequality, knowing and understanding that the inequalities that are there, in families, in parents to be, are then transmitted to their children, and that then affects children’s later life outcomes. And I think what we’ve really learned from our work is we’ve learnt lots of sort of small pieces of information about the kinds of activities parents can be doing, particularly relationships in child development, you know, kind of between the relationship between children’s language development and their socio emotional development. But ultimately, those things are mediated, they’re heavily influenced by wider household opportunity and resource that’s available. And if we aren’t able to ensure that people have those opportunities to interact with their children, to spend time with them to be able to do activities with them. Either because their economic situation doesn’t allow it, or they simply don’t have the space and resources available to do those kinds of play activities, and talking and reading with children then continues the cycle of inequality.

Christine Garrington  13:39

Yeah, no, that’s so interesting and important. And I wonder, so what are the wider implications of these findings? So we talked a lot here about, you know, about policymaking and policy makers and early intervention. But for those sort of seeking to design those interventions to tackle inequality, or even practitioners working in the fields, such as teachers in schools, who may also have a role to play in this, you know, what are the takeaways for them? Helen, you go first, and then I’ll move to Kjell.

Helen Wareham  14:07

I think if I’m honest, this is actually quite a difficult question to answer at the minute. Because inequalities, you know, we see the landscape of inequalities, you know, I think the acronym DIAL referring to inequalities as dynamic, I think, is really useful and interesting, because inequalities react to global events. Which we, you know, we’ve experienced over the last few years and are continuing to see, but kind of inequality at the centre of that doesn’t really change and it hasn’t really changed. And I think that’s something that’s really important to acknowledge that we understand a lot about the nuance and the mechanisms and how inequalities affects people’s lives. But there’s still a fundamental issue at the centre of that about the key factors of inequalities that haven’t changed. And I think then that means as a, as a researcher, I can sort of provide evidence about some of these relationships and even put together interventions that will help children catch up with their language development at a later point. But it doesn’t address the fundamental issue. That kind of we’ve created as a society, you know, where parents aren’t able to spend time with their children, because they’re having to work three in four jobs. So you know, working 14 hour days, to ensure that children have a roof over their heads and are fed. I think it’s a lot to ask of teachers, there’s a lot of strain on teachers already know, they’re kind of going above and beyond, when I think schools are struggling to even heat classrooms. It’s hard to know kind of what to put out there as what policymakers can be doing and practitioners as interventions, when I think we have a kind of responsibility to address those fundamental needs. So I think that means as a researcher, what I have to do is kind of advocate for that greatest viable change. And let people know the you know, the evidence is there of what interventions we can deliver. But we’ve got to get people to a point where they can, you know, parents can spend time with their children, and talk to them and read to them. And children can go to school, and be in an environment where they’re able to accept and receive learning, and people can go to work and feel that they can go and do the job and not have so many other concerns.

Christine Garrington  16:24

Yeah, absolutely. No quick fix no simple answers, right? And Kjell I’m guessing again, a lot of that probably feeds into your thinking too.

Kjell Salvanes  16:34

Yeah, you know, so at least partly, what I tend to find is that there has been strong improvements both along the differences across, you know, in terms of education, you know, from different children from different backgrounds, and also in terms of income. So there has been a lot of improvements, I think that is important to say, but are some areas where, we haven’t seen so much gains, or there has been you know, it’s more difficult, and especially among the very poor, you see also in the Nordic countries, that seems to be very difficult to get them sort of above a certain level. And so there’s a lot of persistence at the bottom across generations. And also at the top, there’s a lot of persistence, you know, the rich, do well independent and the poor do not do that almost independent of policy. So I think, to better understand these two mechanisms, and especially, you know, for the poor, what is it exactly? Why do don’t they take more education? Why do they don’t perform better in the labour market? What is it exactly? Is it lack of resources? Or is, do they have different expectations? They don’t think that they can do it or is it information, they don’t know about it, or they know about it, but cannot do anything about it, let’s say because of the restrictions that Helen mentioned. So I think this is the area where I think we need much more to understand much more what’s going on.

Christine Garrington  18:06

That brings me very nicely to my final question for you both, which is if you’d like is whether you have a feel for what needs to happen now? I mean, you’ve both alluded to it. But you know, both in terms of research, but in terms of how do we move things forward? How do we get to a point at which change can happen? And that’s a difficult one I know, Helen.

Helen Wareham  18:25

It is a difficult one, because I think there’s a lot of structural inequalities that exist. And those are difficult to change. And I think that that’s thing as a sort of longer term view about what needs to happen. Now, and I think we are kind of globally at a very critical point. The pandemic, in particular, I think has highlighted to people the need for certain changes to happen, climate change has been another one where there’s a real need and call for action. And for larger, more structural changes to happen. And I think that can go a long way to addressing kind of very fundamental structural inequalities. And that’s it, it’s, it’s that need to look on a longer term beyond kind of quick wins and marginal gains. And that’s where I think the research around child development, first couple of years of children’s lives are so pivotal, an investment and a shift towards ensuring that children have the best possible start they can in life doesn’t initially pay off. It’s a long term strategy. But it means in 10-20 years time, what we get is a huge payoff in terms of a happier, healthier, more skilled workforce, and a real step towards breaking some of those inequalities. I think a shorter term thing about what could happen right now is I think the education gap we have particularly around those children who have kind of recently finished their kind of national standard level of education during the pandemic, you know, we’ve seen a widening in that education gap. Ensuring that as many children as possible have achieved a national standard of education, I think is is really key because we know that achieving that will create a shift and a potential to kind of open up opportunities for children to be able to go on to further study and improve their education or to be able to enter the workforce at a better point than we are seeing. So I think there’s a real potential, there’s a short term acting to make sure that the children, particularly those affected by the pandemic have been supported and are achieving at least a national standard of education.

Kjell Salvanes  20:33

And one of the things that sort of resonates what Helen is saying is that it has become clear that differences among kids is seen very early on, you know, before they start school. So that means that the family and early years are extremely important. And I think that was not the focus, let’s say 10 years ago, it is the focus now. And I think we need to understand much more about that. So that is one thing you see also increased inequality, not only, you know, in a socio-economic dimension, but also regionally. Certain areas, let’s say in England, Southern England, around London, you know, are prospering. I mean, while other places, let’s say in the north of England, and the same thing in Norway, in the North of Norway and other places, they sort of are falling behind. So I think that dimension is also very important. It’s not one thing that’s going on the different things that are going on, and I think this is also has high has important implication for economic policies, you know, to stabilise those areas.

Christine Garrington  21:36 

Thanks to Kjell Salvanes and Helen Wareham for discussing what’s been learned from their respective DIAL projects on this episode of the DIAL podcast, which was presented by me Chris Garrington of Research Podcasts. You can find a range of resources including working papers, journal articles, policy briefs, podcasts and blogs on the DIAL website at