New research shows link between early-years disadvantages and costly outcomes in later life

19th December 2016

In a study published last week in Nature Human Behaviour, Caspi et al. examined the relationship between early-years disadvantages (eg low socio-economic status, childhood maltreatment) and negative outcomes in later life (eg criminal offences, health outcomes, social welfare benefits – when adults reached 38 years of age).

The researchers used data collected over a 35-year period from 1037 individuals living in New Zealand. The full article is freely available here.

First, the researchers found that a small proportion of individuals (22% of the overall cohort) was accessing a disproportionate share of public services. This small group of people - coined ‘multiple-high cost’ adults - were linked to high negative economic outcomes. In particular, they accounted for 81% of total court convictions, 66% of welfare benefits and 78% of prescription drug fills (Figure 1).

The researchers also found that both childhood risk factors (eg maltreatment, socioeconomic status) and an early-years ‘brain health’ measure (ie a measure of the general neurocognitive state of a child at 3 years of age) could predict whether a child was likely to become a ‘multiple-high cost’ adult 30 years later. In particular, “children who grew up in socio-economically deprived environments, who experienced child maltreatment, who scored more poorly on childhood IQ tests and who exhibited less self- control were more likely to […] become members of the multiple-high-cost segment of their society”.

Caspi and colleagues wrote: “The predictions […] make clear that the most costly adults in our cohort started the race of life from a starting block somewhere behind the rest […]. But there is no merit in blaming the victim for economic burden following from childhood disadvantage. Instead, ameliorating the effects of childhood disadvantage is an important aim and achieving this through early-years support for families and children could benefit all members of a society.

Overall, the findings show that early years factors are strongly tied to adult outcomes and as a consequence, early-interventions providing support to disadvantaged children could “yield very large returns on investment”. In a BBC news report about the research, the authors emphasised that “society should rethink their view of these people who are often condemned as ‘losers’ and ‘dropouts’ and instead offer more support.” In addition, Caspi 'hoped that the study would persuade governments to invest in those in most need early on in life'.

The Nurture Group Network CEO Kevin Kibble said: ‘This research supports previous studies showing the long-term effects of not supporting the most disadvantaged children especially in terms of accessing education - one of the key elements to being able to live a more successful life. At NGN we have been campaigning for many years for children and young people with social, emotional and mental health barriers to learning in order to get the nurturing support that would help them overcome these barriers.’ Furthermore, it is clear from previous studies that the earlier we intervene, the more effective and cost-effective the support becomes.'

NGN echoes the call from Caspi for governments to invest in early support. A couple of weeks ago, NGN launched the Nurture Portrait, the first edition of an annual portrayal of the social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (SEBD) experienced by children and young people across the UK. In the report, NGN recommended using the Boxall Profile in all schools to identify and respond as early as possible to pupils’ SEBD needs.

If you would like to know more about the research presented here or about the Nurture Portrait, you can contact our Researcher, Florence Ruby at



  • Caspi, Avshalom, et al. "Childhood forecasting of a small segment of the population with large economic burden." Nature Human Behaviour 1 (2016): 0005.
  • Ghosh, P. (2016, December 12). Brain tests predict children's futures. BBC News. Retrieved from