• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Thursday 16th June, 2016

How disadvantage is inherited

The UK lags behind other EU members on social mobility, scoring lower than countries like Italy and Spain. Results from a study by the Office of National Statistics suggest that this may be the result of both “cycles of poverty” and “cycles of low education.”In the UK, there is a stronger link between the income of parents and that of their children than in many other developed countries. Economic mobility is relatively low in the UK, and educational mobility is, too. What explains the link? The ONS analysis suggests that a parent’s economic situation influences their children’s future earnings mainly through its effect on the child’s educational attainment. In other words, parents with low education are more likely to get low-paying jobs, which puts the family at risk of material deprivation. The stress and lack of resources that come with poverty, in turn, make it less likely that children will succeed at school. And education level, in turn, influences the income opportunities the child will have. In this way, the income situation of parents is passed on to their children. And the education situation of parents is passed on to their children, too.

What breaks the cycle?

According to the report, “Education is the most important factor in explaining poverty in the UK. Those with a low level of educational attainment are almost five times as likely to be in poverty now as those with a high level of education.” In this study, UK children whose fathers had a low level of education were 7.5 times more likely to have low educational attainment than the offspring of highly educated men with at least a bachelor’s degree, when other childhood influences are also taken into account. The children of parents with little education were at much higher risk of adult poverty. But once the researchers took individuals’ own education level into account, the effect of their parents’ education was no longer important. This suggests that children of poor parents who manage to get higher levels of education are no more likely to experience poverty than similarly-educated children of more affluent parents. Put simply, better education can counteract much of the effect of childhood family background.

Different experiences across Europe

In all the European countries examined in the report, poverty, material deprivation, and low education are partly inherited. In both the UK and other nations, parents’ education is consistently related to children’s educational attainment, and a child’s education level is a major influence on their future earnings. But the situation is not the same in all nations. Parents’ education is only weakly related to children’s earnings in countries that have higher rates of economic mobility.

Lessons for policy

There are two very different implications for policymakers. The first is that, at least in the UK, anything that increases children’s chances of getting a good education is also likely to cut their risk of ending up in poverty later. There might be many good points to intervene. These data suggest that helping parents is an important way to help their children – by reducing the difficulty that families have in making ends meet, for instance, or improving the quality and pay of parents’ employment. The second is that we need a better understanding of why education is so critical for children’s future prospects in the UK, and what can be done to improve the prospects of those with less education. Investment that creates better wages and working conditions for manual workers and people in retail and service industries is also likely to increase economic mobility. In short, both education and labor market policies are needed. Better education helps improve individual children’s chances. And policies that improve the job prospects for young people without college degrees can also help to break the link between low education and poverty.


Serafino, P., Tonkin, R. (2014). Intergenerational transmission of disadvantage in the UK & EU. Office for National Statistics.

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