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Family income and child development: why we need better discourse and better implementation of policies

If we want to reduce inequality in child development for families living on a low income, we need a change in narrative and better policy implementation that reflects the incredible value of the earliest years of a child’s life and the experience of families living in poverty.

That was the shared view of professionals working to address poverty and inequality and in the early years sector in Scotland when Save the Children and Nesta convened a group of third sector leaders, academics and senior public servants to discuss the role of family income in improving early child development.

During a day of open, frank and inspiring debate and discussion, key themes emerged around the evidence needed to design and practically implement family income interventions and the importance of income security, the need to listen to the voices of lived experience and the sensitivities around how poverty and inequality is framed and communicated.

The environment and experiences of early childhood shape our brains and bodies, creating the building blocks of our physical, emotional and cognitive skills.

Not every child gets what they need to develop during the early years. Children growing up in poverty are less likely to live a long, fulfilling and happy life than their peers. Nesta’s fairer start mission is built on the moral premise that the circumstances of one’s birth should not dictate the trajectory of their life.

In Scotland, 24% of children live in poverty. Across the UK it is 29%. Recent research showed more than 1 million children in the UK experienced destitution in 2022.

It is in the context of these shocking figures that we are exploring ways of alleviating the financial pressure faced by families experiencing poverty when their children are in their earliest years. By reducing the financial pressures parents face, we believe we may be able to reduce parental stress and improve material resources for parenting – helping enable a more optimal home learning environment for children during critical years of their development.

The role of evidence

The need for sound data and evidence to support work in family income and child development was recognised, and there were a range of views around what would be most valuable.

We heard during our discussion that the relationship between poverty and childhood development inequalities is one of the most widely documented. But many in the room wanted to see evidence on how to better implement and scale effective policies aimed at addressing the link between family income and child development outcomes.

Scotland’s well-documented and much-lamented implementation gap – the gap between its progressive political and policy ambitions to address pervasive social issues like poverty and what actually happens on the ground – was invoked throughout the day. And many attendees highlighted the role that implementation studies and joined up data can help tackle this implementation gap.

Political consensus and sound policies

Attendees were united in the view that Scotland had sound, progressive policies designed to tackle inequalities in childhood and child development. The doubling of funded early learning and childcare hours, the Early Years Framework, Children and Young People Improvement Collaborative (formerly the Early Years Collaborative) and the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act of 2017 were all highlighted as important policies and frameworks.

Scotland’s stated focus – and political consensus – on tackling poverty in childhood was also recognised and, in the context of family income, the Scottish Child Payment (SCP) featured prominently in discussions.

Delegates were keen to point out the scale and ambition of the social security payment but they also highlighted its limitations. It was pointed out that the payment is attached to the UK-wide Universal Credit system, making the SCP a conditional payment linked to a social security system many in the room described as flawed.

In this context, many pointed out the SCP falls short of secure income for families and suggested that income security was paramount in alleviating poverty to address inequalities. Policy concepts such as a minimum income guarantee, currently being explored by an expert group convened by the Scottish Government, were discussed positively with one attendee saying a guarantee of secure income for families could make the difference between children thriving and merely surviving.

Voices of lived experience

There were strong calls throughout the day to ensure that the development of policies to support families and children facing steep financial stress consider a family-centred and child-centred approach that centres their experience and reflects their preferences.

Especially for those working directly with low-income families, it is important that evidence gathering and how the issues are framed and discussed in policy design and implementation is deeply person-centred and non-stigmatising to reflect the complex reality families faced navigating social security and public services.

The cornerstone of a holistic approach

From the start of the event through to the end, the idea that interventions aimed at reducing childhood inequality must be part of a holistic public policy approach was universally accepted.

Attendees, speakers and panel members recognised that improving child development is about more than family income – sustainable change must take into account the wider structures of support that impact families’ lives, from housing to health, though family income is cornerstone to this holistic approach.

Shaping a better discourse

Discussion often came back to how the issues of poverty and childhood inequality were framed and discussed across society and how narratives on poverty – too often negative and accusatory – shaped attitudes both public and political.

It was suggested that we need to better articulate in public forums the fundamental importance of a child’s early years for development and the impact they have on later life. And, crucially, to do so in a way that values the experience of those living in poverty.

For many, these challenges were as fundamental as gathering evidence, suggesting if the discourse on the issues is poor then even the most robust evidence won’t be enough to see the required shift in policy and practice.

Our focus at Nesta and at Save the Children, as it is for so many of our peers attending the event, is to help ensure that children have the best start in life regardless of their family’s economic circumstances. We’ll be looking at evidence, at discourse and narratives, at policy and policy implementation and taking forward the valuable insights from those in the room.

It is powerful to have such an exceptional group of third sector leaders, academics, senior public servants and early years and child inequality experts in one space, and we look forward to convening more discussions like this in the future.


Linda Macdonald

Linda Macdonald

Linda Macdonald

Mission Manager - fairer start mission, Nesta Scotland

Linda is a mission manager for Scotland, working on the fairer start mission in Edinburgh.

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Sarah Cattan

Sarah Cattan

Sarah Cattan

Mission Director, fairer start mission

Sarah leads Nesta's a fairer start mission.

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