Mind the gap – unequal from the start: addressing inequalities utilising evidence from Growing Up in New Zealand

03 July 2019
Understanding Inequalities Report cover

Evidence gathered from the Growing Up in New Zealand study features in a just-released report looking at how childhood inequalities affect life outcomes.

The report, The impact of inequalities in the early years on outcomes over the life course, follows a symposium at the Scottish Parliament earlier this year of international academics and policy makers.

It details some of the most up-to-date international literature on early inequalities in childhood and identifies key priorities for policy makers and practitioners. 

Growing Up in New Zealand’s principal investigator, Professor Susan Morton, says this study shows that inequalities in developmental opportunities and outcomes have their origins in early in life and that risk factors for early vulnerability cluster. 

“Our findings demonstrate that Māori and Pasifika children experience the highest burden of socioeconomic disadvantage in their early years as well as an unequal burden of significant co-morbidities in terms of health and development throughout their life course,” she says.

You can read Professor Morton’s contribution to the Impact of Inequalities report below and you can access the full report here.

 

Mind the gap – unequal from the start: addressing inequalities utilising evidence from Growing Up in New Zealand
by Professor Susan Morton

New Zealand has unacceptably high rates of poor child health and wellbeing compared to other developed countries.

Overall population wellbeing statistics conceal wide inequalities in outcomes for Maori and Pasifika children. These groups experience a disproportionate burden of poor social, educational, health and economic outcomes throughout their life course. Understanding why we see these persistent gaps in wellbeing, and what context-relevant strategies might be implemented to reduce the burden, has been an explicit objective of the contemporary longitudinal cohort study, Growing Up in New Zealand, since its inception in 2008.

Longitudinal information has been collected from an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse cohort of 6,853 New Zealand children and their families from before birth to school entry (0 to 5 years) to date. A key aim of the study is to use the evidence from analyses to inform context-relevant strategies to reduce inequalities from early life. In particular, we focussed on the differences by ethnicity in exposure to persistent poverty over the first 1000 days of life, as well as how these contribute to early gaps in serious childhood illnesses, abnormal child behaviour, obesity and readiness for school.

The findings from the Growing Up in New Zealand study demonstrate that Maori and Pasifika children experience the highest burden of socioeconomic disadvantage in their early years as well as an unequal burden of significant co-morbidities in terms of health and development throughout their life course. By the time they start school (at age 5 years) many are already falling behind their peers in terms of preparedness for formal education and readiness to engage in learning.

The study has shown that inequalities in developmental opportunities and outcomes have their origins in early in life. Risk factors for early vulnerability cluster and there is no one single proxy marker of disadvantage. Additionally, morbidity and poor outcomes cluster. Persistent adversity is associated with a graded likelihood of poor outcomes (across the population). Further service use is not meeting measured need. Currently, access to early life universal services may be widening inequalities. A proportional-universalism approach to services is required if they are to meet real need and reduce inequalities.

The findings on resilience in the preschool years from the Growing Up in New Zealand study have been used to inform the co-design of a significant community based strategy to tackle inequalities in one of the most deprived communities in New Zealand. Strengths-based approaches such as these are particularly relevant to the New Zealand government’s bold new cross-sectoral wellbeing strategy.

Through this research, we have found that to effectively influence and inform policy, research evidence needs to go beyond looking only at risk factors and also take into account an understanding of what shapes resilience among communities, diverse families and for individuals over time. Partnerships between researchers and policymakers create opportunities to facilitate robust scientific research with capacity to provide policy relevant outputs. Working across policy sectors acknowledges that cross-sectoral solutions will be required to address the most entrenched social and wellbeing problems from early life onwards.