Poverty and Child Neglect: What we Know and What we Need to Do

Child Abuse & Neglect
Poverty & Family Economics

This is the 4th in a series of First Focus blog posts commemorating the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty and offering modern ways to continue fighting child poverty.

Poverty is especially harmful to children during the early years of life, a finding demonstrated by countless studies over the years. It has been linked to disruptions in learning and academic performance. A number of studies have shown that children living in poverty begin to show lower cognitive and academic readiness, as early as age two, and to perform worse on a number of cognitive measures – a finding that continues as children progress through school. Poor children are more likely to repeat a grade, to be expelled or suspended from school, and to drop out of school. Children from poor households are also more likely to suffer from chronic health conditions, including asthma, diabetes, hearing, vision and speech delays.

Poverty can have lasting effects on the brain structure. A recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that children living in poverty had smaller hippocampal volume, a region of the brain linked to learning and memory, as compared to children who were not poor. Poor children were also found to have smaller amygdala volume, an area of the brain linked to emotional functioning.

The effects of living in poverty persist well into adulthood. Childhood poverty has been linked to overall poor health and higher rates of mortality in adulthood. Childhood poverty and chronic stress can even lead to problems regulating emotions as an adult.

Linked to a host of negative outcomes, poverty is often considered the single best predictor of child maltreatment, especially child neglect. Data compiled by the Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect indicate that children from families with annual incomes below $15,000 were over 22 times more likely to experience maltreatment than children from families whose income exceeded $30,000. These children were almost 56 times more likely to be educationally neglected and over 22 times more likely to be seriously injured. While poverty is clearly linked with maltreatment, the relationship is not all that simple.

Not all parents who live in poverty abuse their children, and many who do are not poor. The link between child abuse and poverty can be explained in a number of ways. For instance, it is possible that experiencing poverty generates family stress, which in turn, leads to greater likelihood of abuse or neglect. Or perhaps, parents living in poverty do not have access to the resources necessary and are unable to provide appropriate care for children. Or, it’s possible that other factors (e.g., substance abuse) make parents vulnerable and more likely to be both poor and abusive or neglectful.

Children experience neglect more often than any other forms of maltreatment. Lack of housing and transportation, in addition to access to substance abuse treatment, are common themes in child neglect cases.

States have identified poverty as a significant obstacle for families involved with the child welfare system. In response, State and county agencies have developed strategies to provide concrete supports to families, help to lift them out of poverty, and in doing so, reduce risk for entry into the child welfare system. As an example, a number of states are deploying differential response, which allows for a varied response to allegations of maltreatment (based on factors including type of alleged maltreatment, number and severity of reported maltreatment, age of child), and shifts what is typically an adversarial system response away from a traditional investigation to one that offers families a continuum of services that allow a child to remain safely at home and to avoid removal. Minnesota’s differential response initiative offers an example of this strategy, providing concrete services such as financial assistance for utilities, rent, food, child care and health needs to families.

States are also making better linkages between child welfare and various economic supports. Launched in 2009, by The Center for the Study of Social Policy, the Family Economic Success Learning Network highlights a number of innovative strategies undertaken by states to “better identify and deploy strategies to vulnerable families,” including:

  • Providing employment support grants;
  • Expediting enrollment process for economic benefits for child welfare-involved families;
  • Creating an employment pipeline that coordinates job recruitment, placement and career advancement services for families in the child welfare system;
  • Directing federal funds as temporary cash assistance to deliver family preservation and reunification services to families with incomes below 200% of federal poverty and whose allegations of neglect are confirmed;
  • Family Team Meetings designed to help parents better access benefits, asset building programs and job training’; and,
  • Partnerships between child welfare and TANF departments to help connect families to training, employment, asset building, housing and other benefit programs.

These are just some of the many strategies currently underway across states aimed at helping lift families out of poverty and reduce risk for entry (or re-entry) into the child welfare system.

Clearly poverty and child neglect are linked. We need to continue to invest in efforts that address poverty-related safety risks for children and keep children and families together.