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How socioeconomic status affects a child’s future

A recent Spanish study shows that socioeconomic status in early life plays a mediating role in educational, employment, family, and health.

For all too many people worldwide, poverty remains a stubborn fact of life. Socioeconomic status can influence an individual’s physical health, educational attainment, mental health, and life satisfaction among others. Recently, researchers have discovered many of the complex associations between socioeconomic status in childhood and their health and happiness later in life. More in-depth analyses are currently underway to understand how all of these factors interact with each other in complex ways.

In a recent study published in the journal PLOS One, researchers from Spain used the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) data set to assess the influence of parental socioeconomic status on an individual’s future. There was data available for just over 12,000 individuals in Europe including 6,221 women and 5,813 men.

The influence of socioeconomic status on education

The results showed that children from low-income households tend to be less ready for school. For example, kindergarten children who were poorer tended to score significantly lower on vocabulary and communication skills, knowledge of numbers, copying, and symbol use, the ability to concentrate, and the ability to respond appropriately and constructively to conflict (Thomas, 2007).

This study shows that this trend continues throughout the school years. In particular, children from poorer families were less likely to finish high school or to go to university.  As a result, they were also less likely to obtain good employment defined as well paid, steady, full-time, and with health and retirement benefits.

Negative consequences for partnerships and health

In turn, this has negative consequences for partnerships and health. The results showed that much of the variation between outcomes could be explained by parental educational attainment. In fact, between 22% and 44% of the impact of parental socioeconomic status of on the future success of their children can be explained by their mother’s educational achievement, and between 35% and 57% can be explained by their father’s educational achievement. Education was the most important factor that influenced this relationship.

Children who grew up in families with a lower socioeconomic status were more likely to marry earlier, to have children at younger ages, to have more children, and to experience marital disruptions. As one might expect, employment without medical benefits, underemployment, and unemployment were shown to have a negative impact upon both adult physical and mental health as well as adult perceptions of health and well-being.

One of the major limitations of this study was narrowing the definition of poverty to incidence and timing alone. In general, the negative effects of poverty on life outcomes are also dependent upon a range of other factors including the depth of poverty, the duration of poverty, and neighbourhood characteristics such as the density of poverty, crime rates, and local school characteristics.

Education is an important mediator for children’s future

Nonetheless, these findings confirm poverty’s negative influence on life and health outcomes. This study emphasizes the importance of education as a mediator for the effects of childhood socioeconomic status on future life achievement. Additionally, they indicate that governmental and private investments in early interventions that target prenatal care, parenting skills, and social and cognitive school readiness are likely to produce long-lasting effects for individuals throughout their lives.

Written by Debra A. Kellen, PhD


(1) Arpino, B., Gumà, J., & Julià, A. (2018). Early-life conditions and health at older ages: The mediating role of educational attainment, family and employment trajectories. PloS one13(4), e0195320-e0195320.
(2)Thomas EM. Readiness to learn at school among five-year-old children in Canada. <> (Version current at September 10, 2007)

Debra Kellen PhD
Debra Kellen PhD
With undergraduate degrees in Neuroscience and Education from the University of Toronto, Debra began her career as a teacher. Nine years later, when she moved to Michigan, Debra earned a Ph.D. in Education Policy from the University of Michigan. Today, Debra organizes conferences and conducts workshops to provide training and support for educators and medical professionals on effective coaching, staff recruitment and training, and creating a culture of continuous improvement. She loves to read and enjoys the challenge of translating medical research into informative, easy-to-read articles. Debra spends her free time with her family, travelling, wandering through art fairs, and canoeing on the Huron River.


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