The impact of socioeconomic polarisation and inequalities of wealth and income on cognitive development

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Health Science


It is well established that socioeconomic status (SES) and health are related (Macintyre, 1994; Pickett and Pearl, 2001) through influencing access to health services; attitudes towards health; stress; and a lack of social support (Macintyre, Maciver, & Sooman, 1993). More recently, children born into low SES families have been found to have poorer cognitive development in terms of language and executive function, including working memory (Hackman and Farah, 2009). Importantly, working memory is a more powerful predictor of subsequent academic success than IQ (Alloway and Alloway, 2010). Clearly, the consequences of being from a low SES family leave children at risk of being at cognitive disadvantage.
The majority of this research has exclusively focused on the consequences of inequality for low SES families. Beyond this, there is a correlation between societies with inequality and social problems; proposed to be a consequence of increased status competition and exacerbated social anxiety among individuals in a society. Hence, inequalities in society are detrimental not only for the low SES families, but for everyone living in that society (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009). Still, there is little empirical data available that explores the relationship between inequality and cognitive development.
This study will investigate the relationship between inequality of wealth/income and cognitive development. By revealing the risk that inequality impedes on cognitive development for all levels of SES, relevant interventions can be designed for these children. Furthermore, this investigation may further the argument to minimize inequalities, and improve the societies that these at risk children live in by impacting on policy and practice.
The hypothesis is that children from high inequality societies will display poorer performance in measures of cognitive development, in comparison to children from equal societies.

Participants. This study would have access to The Born in Bradford (BiB) cohort. BiB is a longitudinal medical research study examining health and development during childhood, and subsequently adult life in a deprived multi-ethnic population. Importantly, 60% of the babies born in the city are born into the poorest 20% of the population of England and Wales (Wright et al, 2013). The participants would be children from the BiB cohort who live in high inequality neighbourhoods. Another group of children would also be recruited from low inequality neighbourhoods.
Design. This research would use an observational matched pairs design, where the participants tested from the BiB cohort will be compared to another group matched in terms of age and gender. The independent variable (IV) is the level of socioeconomic inequality (high or low), and the dependent variable (DV) is the performance on measures of cognitive development.
Measures. The IV will be determined by assessing the disparities of wealth/income in the neighbourhood that the participants live in. Additionally, the SES of individual participants could be collected. The DV measures will involve a battery of standardised cognitive measures including a working memory test battery (Pickering and Gathercole, 2001).

A regression analysis will be conducted to produce a model that reflects the relationship between socioeconomic inequality and cognitive development.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000746/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
1944092 Studentship ES/P000746/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2021 Kate Mooney
Description I have completed a systematic review on the association between socioeconomic disadvantage, ethnic minority status, and children's working memory (WM) ability. From this review I have found that there is a significant and medium effect size between socioeconomic position and working memory - where children from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds score lower. This effect was consistent across both verbal and visuospatial WM, and across both simple and complex WM. I also found that ethnic minority children appear to do worse on WM, however, there was not enough research with appropriate modelling techniques to confirm this.

The review highlighted several important research questions, several of which will be addressed during my PhD data analysis:
• whether the relationship between SEP and WM is a causal association
• what factors might mediate any relationship between SEP and WM
• whether a relationship between ethnicity and WM exists, after adjusting for SEP as a mediator
• what factors might mediate any relationship between ethnic minority status and WM
• whether a relationship between ethnic minority status and WM ability exists in England
Exploitation Route In terms of academic routes, I will address some of the research gaps found from this review. I will be undertaking data analysis of the Born in Bradford longitudinal cohort study, and be able to answer some of the research gaps above. Additionally, the findings from this review are relevant to models and theories of WM, and should be taken into consideration when investigating WM abilities in children.

In terms of non-academic routes, the information from this review is relevant for parents, teachers, and other practitioners who work with children. This information may be useful for teachers working with socioeconomically disadvantaged children, as they can be aware that the children's WM abilities may limit their abilities in the classroom. Teachers may be able to provide aids to children to alleviate their WM load.
Sectors Education

Description Presentation at postgraduate research session. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact I presented at a postgraduate research session, and took questions from the audience after on my research. Audience members included postgraduate students from many different disciplines. Audience members commented that new knowledge was gained.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019