Welfare benefits may boost children’s cognitive development

14 December 2016

More generous benefits for families in Britain may explain better test scores for some children compared to the United States, according to research using the National Child Development Study (NCDS).

Researchers from North Carolina State University examined the results of numeracy and literacy tests given to the children of NCDS participants and those taking part in the American National Longitudinal Study of Youth. They looked at the scores of 1,309 British children who were aged between 5 and 13 when they were assessed in 1991, and 3,439 American children, tested in 1994.

In both Britain and the US, family background, including parents’ education, was the most important influence on children’s cognitive development. But two differences stood out, which might be related to differences in the two countries’ social security systems. Children of single mothers in the US scored lower in literacy than those in comparable British households. American children from larger families also scored lower on numeracy than their counterparts in Britain.

The researchers suggested that “aspects of family structure may be bolstered by welfare state support,” in particular the extra money that came into British households through child and other benefits. For example, it is possible that British single mothers, fewer of whom worked full time than in the US, could afford to spend more time with their children.

Children with unemployed fathers also did less well in literacy in Britain. In the US, children had lower scores when their fathers worked a lot of overtime. In both countries, children who had bouts of ill health went on to do worse on numeracy tests. Access to free NHS care in Britain did not ‘insulate’ children from the negative impact of illness on cognitive development, the researchers noted.

The study referred to social security as it was in the early 1990s. Since then child and out-of-work benefits policy has changed in both countries. It was not possible to determine how much families in Britain and the US actually took advantage of social programmes.

Read the full paper

Can the welfare state replace parents? Children’s cognition in the United States and Great Britain’ by T.L. Parcel and L.A. Campbell was published in Social Science Research in October 2016.

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