Last week the government cut universal credit by £1,040 per year, which analysts said could push another 200,000 children into poverty.
“What this study shows is that social and economic disadvantage overwhelmingly takes hold early in life, in the first few years, and has a potential life-long impact on respiratory and general health,” said Sonia Saxena, professor of primary care at Imperial’s School of Public Health.
The findings show childhood asthma rates are primarily driven by “the types of exposures you get when you don’t have any control over the environment in which you are raising your child”, she added.
“If the government is serious about ‘levelling up’ the UK, it needs to start right at the beginning of life, to ensure children start on equal footing.”
The UK has one of the worst asthma death rates in Europe.
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Researchers followed the lives of nearly 7,500 children across the UK born between 2000 amd 2002. They collected data on the children’s circumstances and their health at six points, between the ages of nine months and 14 years, and grouped children according to their mother’s level of education which they explained is a “strong proxy for social disadvantage”.
This means mothers with lower educational attainment are more likely to live in low-income households and overcrowded, damp rented homes, they said, and their children more likely to be exposed to cigarette smoke or air pollution from nearby traffic.
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In the study, the academics found that the most disadvantaged children were more likely to be born to a younger mother or come from a minority ethnic background. They also examined the impact of other factors, such as birthweight and if they were breastfed, but found disadvantage in early life to be the main driver of illness.
“If we want to prevent disadvantaged children reaching adolescence and adulthood in worse health than their peers, we need to improve conditions during pregnancy and childhood to support the healthy development of children and reduce inequalities across the life course,” said Dr Hanna Creese, an Imperial research associate and first author of the study.
“This means fundamental changes to housing, education and social care.”
The government was contacted for comment.