In Germany, 17 percent of children under the age of three grow up in families who are reliant on basic benefits from the state.
A study published by the Bertelsmann Foundation on Thursday found that significant numbers of those children are behind by the time they start school.
In their first year, 43 percent of children from poor backgrounds were likely to have inadequate literacy skills, compared with 14 percent among children from well-off families.
Physical factors are also affected by the gap in wealth. The study shows that even at this early stage, 25 percent of children from disadvantaged backgrounds are likely to have poor coordination, compared to 15 percent from better-off families.
Children from poorer families are also twice as likely to be overweight than those brought up in wealthier surroundings.
Families who don’t rely on financial aid from the state were also more able to provide their children with richer cultural experiences.
Children in this category were more than twice as likely to have played a musical instrument, and almost twice as likely to be a member of a sports team.
Nurseries the key?
Because 48 percent of children from wealthier backgrounds attend nursery – against just 31 percent of those from poorer ones – some might think that would give them a leg-up.
However the study shows this is not necessarily the case. The researchers believe that nurseries only have a positive effect on the factors in question when the groups are socially mixed.
The study was carried out by researchers from Bochum University on 5,000 school starters between 2010 and 2013 in Müllheim, a city in western Germany.
Despite only looking at one place, Kirsten Witte from the Bertelsmann Foundation said: "the results from Müllheim are transferable for the rest of Germany".
by Matty Edwards