Parental income impacts children’s health well into adulthood

URBANA, Ill. — Children born to low-income families are more likely to grow up to be obese and develop obesity-related diseases in adulthood, according to a new study. Researchers from the University of Illinois add that their findings are particularly true among “permanent” low-income families.

“There has been a lot of research connecting parents’ socioeconomic status with children’s future outcomes. Our innovation in this study is to differentiate the importance of two components, which are permanent and transitory income. Each of these would have different policy implications,” says lead study author Yilan Xu, associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics, in a university release.

A parent’s income can have a long-lasting impact

Permanent income is an individual’s long-term socioeconomic status, while transitory income refers to temporary monetary highs and lows. Receiving a bonus at work would be an example of an income high. Conversely, countless families and parents saw their income dip due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which would be a monetary low.

Researchers analyzed a dataset originally collected for the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID). That project tracked thousands of families over a 47-year period. Scientists began collecting parental income data in 1968. In 1999, researchers turned their attention to those parents’ now-adult children.

The team calculated each parent’s permanent income and transitory peaks and valleys in reference to three distinct life periods among their children: childhood (ages 0 to 5), middle childhood (ages 6 to 11), and adolescence (ages 12 to 17). After that, researchers correlated the income with the kids’ subsequent health outcomes such as obesity and obesity-linked health issues like heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. The study examined a total of 3,976 adult children, assessing their health developments across four adult age brackets: 25 to 30, 31 to 35, 46 to 40, and 41 to 45 years-old.

That investigation led to the conclusion that the influence of parental income on child health outcomes is strongest among the poor. On a related note, as a child’s parents’ permanent income rises, that child becomes less and less likely to develop obesity and obesity-related diseases later in life. Notably, transitory increases in parental income during a child’s adolescence also appears to promote better health.

Finding a way to spread the wealth around

Study authors hope their work helps encourage more programs aimed at ending poverty and helping people earn more money and find a better “position” in life. It isn’t just the adults of today that suffer, but their children as well.

“Policies that fundamentally change people’s lives and help them move up the social ladder would be very beneficial in the long term. Parents’ socioeconomic status doesn’t just affect their own wellbeing and their children’s immediate environment. It also has impacts in the future, and the results are very consistent across young adulthood life stages and different health outcomes. That’s important to highlight; yet many people don’t realize this intergenerational effect,” Prof. Xu concludes.

The study is published in Social Science & Medicine.