The Lottery Of Life

Fifteenth instalment - poverty and wealth

It’s the same the whole world over
It’s the poor what get the blame
It’s the rich what get the pleasure
Ain’t it all a bloomin’ shame.

          Late 19th century English music hall song

In the previous instalment I attempted to explain the way in which factors that appear entirely environmental may have a genetic element. For instance, parents who are active, busy and hard‑working may well bring up their offspring to demonstrate the same traits. This might appear to be an environmental influence: the child’s surroundings and the attitudes of those around him rubbing off on him, as it were. However there is likely to be a genetic element: the parents’ activity level and their tendency to work hard will be to some extent the result of their genetic make-up; the child’s readiness to adopt the same attitudes will be to some extent the product of the DNA he has inherited from them. It seems reasonable to go as far as to say that almost any feature of a parental household that might be deemed to influence the development of a child – books, jokes and laughter, procrastination, irrationality, hypochondria – may well have a genetic component.

While most children are brought up by one or more of their ancestors, in environments determined largely by those parents and grandparents, it is of course the case that some children are brought up by other people. There is a large field of research into genetically identical twins raised separately in different households, and these tend to show that while a pair of identical twins manifests the same personality traits regardless of separate upbringing, environment has a role in guiding attitudes and the way those traits are expressed. Religiosity, for instance, appears to be largely an inherited trait, but which religion a person becomes devoted to is a matter of upbringing.

But I really should start to discuss this instalment’s topic. This is, of course, the one thing other than DNA that parents can and do pass down to their children: money, or the lack of it.

This is more than a matter of inherited wealth – the fact that in general the younger generations in wealthy families inherit, in the fullness of time, the wealth of the older generations. In most cases where this happens the lucky beneficiaries are well into adulthood because the bequeathing of riches to offspring occurs after the death of the longest-surviving of the parents. My father, for instance, who outlived my mother, died when I was sixty-three. My concern in this blog instalment is the luck that accrues to children as a result of their upbringing, and therefore the straightforward passing down of money from one generation to the next falls outside the subject.

Parental wealth is, though, far from irrelevant, as I shall demonstrate. Before I do so I will subject my readers to a few informative statistics.

It is well known that there are enormous disparities in wealth and income – internationally, between countries, and also within countries. I’ll present first some facts about international disparities

UBS Group AG is a financial institution based in Switzerland. It produces annually its Global Wealth Databook. I have no reason to doubt their figures.

  • The wealthiest country, according to UBS, is the United States of America, whose people own 31% of total global wealth.
  • Brits own between them 3.5% of the world’s wealth, making the UK – tied with France – the fifth wealthiest nation.
  • The citizens of the Central African Republic, at the other end of the league table, own less than 0.0005% of the world’s wealth – other countries with the same virtually negligible share include Djibouti, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho and Suriname.

The Databook also lists countries by wealth per adult. This produces a slightly different league table of wealth.

  • The country with the poorest people is Haiti, where the mean wealth per person – the country’s total wealth divided by its population – is 626 US dollars.
  • Switzerland – a country very wealthy in total but relatively thinly populated – has the wealthiest citizens: each Swiss person owns on average 685,226 US dollars. The average Swiss is therefore more than a thousand times wealthier than the average Haitian.
  • (The people of the UK are – on average – the fifteenth wealthiest in the world, with a mean wealth per person of 302,783 US dollars.)

An average, or mean, figure of wealth, however, for any one particular country can conceal vast differences in wealth within that country. Let us consider, for example, oh, I don’t know, what about the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

The Scale of Economic Inequality in the UK is a report published by the Equality Trust. Here are a few highlights:

  • In 2022, households in the bottom 20% of the population had on average adisposable income per adult of £13,218, whilst the top 20% had on average £83,687.
  • Wealth in Great Britain is even more unequally divided than income. In 2020, the ONS calculated that the richest 10% of households hold 43% of all wealth. The poorest 50%, by contrast, own just 9%.
  • By 2023, the richest 50 families in the UK held more wealth than half of the UK population, comprising 33.5 million people.

It is well known that wealth in the UK is unevenly distributed, but the above figures give some sense of the chasm between rich and poor.

The question then is: what has household wealth disparity got to do with luck, as I have defined it? It seems obvious that if one is born in Switzerland one will have more advantages in life than a person born in Haiti; if one is born in the UK, a scion of one of those top fifty families will have a flying start when compared with a person brought up in poverty. But it is important to understand why that is the case. What are the advantages – the good luck – that comes from being brought up in relative wealth; what constitutes the bad luck of being brought up in poverty?

I will now quote extensively from Effects of Poverty on Child Development – The Inspired Treehouse– a report sponsored by Children International. Each point made in the on-line article is backed up by a reference to an academic paper.

  • Research shows that motor development is directly related to the frequency and quality of movement experiences children have. Studies suggest that “motor coordination and play do not simply emerge in all children as part of maturation; healthy physical development is not a sure thing.” So what determines whether or not a child will acquire functional motor skills and achieve healthy physical development? The child’s environment and the people in it. And children living in poverty may have less access to safe outdoor play spaces including playgrounds, green spaces, and wooded areas. Further, while playgrounds can be powerful tools for promoting active outdoor play, research shows “a strong association between the number of natural features in a play environment — eg grass, trees, hills, running water, and sand — and the activity level of children.”  These natural features are less likely to exist in highly concentrated urban areas where poverty rates tend to be higher. Children living in high-density, low-income housing may have less access to space, stairs, and other settings that promote motor skill development. One author noted that children’s crawling and walking were delayed due to a lack of access to adequate space and young children were entering preschool and school age with poorly developed motor skills.
  • Children in low-income families are more likely to receive poor-quality child care. Lower quality daycare and urban child care settings have been associated with fewer opportunities for the types of physically active play and exploration that are associated with healthy development.
  • While the physical environment and opportunities for play and exploration are important factors in kids’ development, the people providing care and supervision for the children are equally important. Families living in poverty may have less knowledge regarding developmental milestones and how to support them. Evidence suggests that many parents and caregivers of children living in poverty have limited education, which “reduces their ability to provide a responsive stimulating environment for their children.” Kids may spend more time in front of a screen and less time playing and engaging with others. Babies may have less access to important developmental experiences like tummy time. Parents and caregivers raising children in poverty may be less available due to work demands and less able to supervise and facilitate positive developmental opportunities for kids.
  • Children living in poverty have been found to have “shorter duration, poor quality, greater variability and greater incidence of clinical sleep disorders.” Without adequate sleep, children’s cognitive processing, academic achievement, behavioural regulation, and overall development are compromised.
  • Children living in poverty do not always have access to nutritious food, which can result in either malnutrition or obesity.
  • Children living in poverty have higher rates of other negative health indicators that affect development, including asthma, and exposure to lead. Complications related to asthma can result in decreased endurance and ability to participate in physical activities. And lead exposure has been correlated with developmental delays in children.

Similar points are made in The Effects of Poverty on Children – Focus for Health.

Focus for Health is an American charitable foundation. Again, I’ll quote extensively as it seems to me the points are all well made.

  • The most important developmental period is the early childhood period as the brain is developing rapidly, and is easily influenced by conditions of poverty. This formative, developmental phase includes physical, social/emotional, and language/cognitive development, all of which are influential on wellbeing throughout life. Children living in poverty early in life have poorer outcomes than adolescents who experience poverty later in life. Studies show that chronic stress can alter a young child’s early brain development, leading to permanent changes in the structure and function of the brain, thereby having negative consequences on learning, behaviour, and health. Researchers found poverty to be associated with smaller white and cortical grey matter and decreased volumes in the hippocampus and amygdala. These brain structures are directly involved in stress regulation and emotional processing.
  • Childhood poverty has long-lasting consequences on mental health as the impact of chronic stress can result in anxiety and behavioural disorders as well as impairing memory, making it more challenging to learn. Researchers found children from low-income communities had increased cortisol levels at ages 7 and 15 months, resulting in poorer cognitive development. In fact, children living below the poverty line have been shown to experience developmental delays up to 2-4 years below grade level, and are more likely to remain poor and uneducated as an adult.
  • Growing up poor has serious health consequences beyond the impact on neurodevelopment. It is well known that people living in poverty have disproportionately worse health outcomes than those who do not and the effects of poverty can begin before a child is born and are likely to last a lifetime. Children living in poverty are more likely to develop chronic illnesses, including asthma and obesity. In fact, a study analyzing race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status (SES) and its relationship to obesity found that low-income was highly associated with obesity and the effect of race/ethnicity was not statistically significant. Additionally, families with limited resources have less access to healthy, fresh, whole food, and are likely to purchase less expensive options like processed, packaged, and even fast foods. The effects of unhealthy eating and the stress of poverty increases risks of obesity, hypertension, and diabetes, ultimately increasing the risk of heart disease as an adult.
  • Children who live with food insecurity are likely to be sick more often, miss more school, and are hospitalized more frequently. In adulthood, chronic diseases can manifest as coronary heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and even stroke as a result of food insecurity. In early childhood, deficiencies of key micronutrients during the vulnerable period of development from birth to 24 months can lead to delays in attention and motor development, poor short-term memory, and lower IQ scores. School-aged children can face immediate and lifelong educational, health, and behavioural problems as a result of hunger.
  • Living in conditions of poverty exposes children to prolonged stress, thereby increasing the production of stress hormones. With prolonged or toxic stress, cortisol levels remain high and can wreak havoc on a child’s organs, body, and brain. Typically, cortisol production is necessary as the body regulates its response to stress, however, with toxic stress, this physiological arousal becomes maladaptive and harmful to the body. Growing up poor increases the likelihood and the number of Adverse Child Experiences (ACEs), which are events considered to be traumatic. Significant research has been conducted on ACEs that shows the lasting effects of these events, which can include witnessing domestic violence, the incarceration of a parent, and even divorce. The more ACEs a child has, the greater risk they have for health and economic problems as adults.

I don’t know about you, but the reports quoted above convince me. Being brought up in a poor household is bad luck – it may encumber a child with physical, mental, behavioural and emotional disadvantages that persist into adulthood. The articles quoted above explain the mechanisms.

Conversely, a child brought up by adults who have the means to provide plenty of nutritious, fresh, varied food; outdoor space in which to play; books; the latest technology in educational computing; a spacious dwelling with stairs to climb and rooms to run about in; access to the high-quality health care; and who have the luxury of time to spend with the child – that child has good luck, and that good luck will stay with him or her throughout adult life.

The conclusion I draw is that, while genetic inheritance and events before birth (and their continuing influence after the child’s birth on the kind of household the parents maintain) constitute the most significant factors in determining a person’s good or bad luck in life, the next most important factor must be the level of wealth of the household in which the child is brought up.

In the next instalment: a brief detour on the subject of happiness. 

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.