Poverty and Mistreatment of Children go Hand in Hand

Summary of working paper 7343
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Children with working mothers and absent fathers are more likely to be subject to neglect and abuse.


Child neglect increases in states that cut their welfare benefit levels. This finding, in light of the recent reforms in the U.S. welfare system, is "particularly troubling," note NBER Research Associate Christina Paxson and Jane Waldfogel in Work, Welfare, and Child Maltreatment (NBER Working Paper No. 7343). Provisions of the reform call for reductions in benefit levels for recipients who do not work. So the children of mothers who receive these cuts "will be at heightened risk of neglect," the authors reckon.

Using state-level data on the number of reports and substantiated cases of child maltreatment, Paxson and Waldfogel find more broadly that the socioeconomic status of families does affect levels of child maltreatment. Maltreatment encompasses a wide range of behavior that harms children, including neglect, physical abuse, and other forms of abuse. Children with working mothers and absent fathers are more likely to be subject to neglect and abuse. So are children with two non-working parents or parents whose income is below 75 percent of the official poverty level.

Paxson and Waldfogel find that increases in the fraction of children in extreme poverty result in increases in maltreatment. For example, if the fraction of children below 75 percent of the poverty line rises from 10 percent to 15 percent in a state, the number of total victims of maltreatment is estimated to rise by 22 percent.

Family structure and parental employment status matter as well. An increase from 10 percent to 15 percent in the fraction of children with a working mother and absent father is predicted to increase substantiated cases of maltreatment by 21 percent. Likewise, an increase from 10 percent to 15 percent in the fraction of children with two unemployed parents is expected to increase maltreatment by 26 percent. However, children with absent fathers and non-working mothers do not appear to be at higher risk for maltreatment than children with two working parents, or a working father and non-working mother.

Absent fathers, unemployed fathers, and increased poverty are all associated with increased maltreatment. Poverty has a bigger impact on neglect than on physical abuse, though. If single mothers work, child maltreatment is considerably more likely, possibly because single working mothers are more neglectful or abusive, or because their children are left in the care of someone who is neglectful or abusive. A shift of 1 percent of children from the category of "absent father, non-working mother" to "absent father, working mother" is associated with an increase in substantiated cases of physical abuse of 6.6 percent and an increase in neglect of 12.6 percent, the authors find.

This raises the issue of the impact of welfare benefit cuts on child maltreatment. Where welfare benefits are relatively high, mothers may be more able to stay home and look after their children. The authors note that about half of families referred to child protective services are receiving welfare at the time of referral, and more than half received welfare in the past. Such families tend to be poor, single parent, or two-parent with a jobless father -- and the author's results indicate that families with this profile are most likely to be reported to child protective services. The authors add: "... moving women off welfare rolls onto jobs that do not pay more than welfare could harm children." They may be stressed by their job, have difficulty making ends meet, and have less energy available to care for children at the end of the day.

-- David Francis