Research findings released this week in the journal Pediatrics highlight the link between income inequality, which is defined as the degree to which income in a geographic area is distributed equally or unequally, and child maltreatment. This study, Income Inequality and Child Maltreatment in the United States, authored by John Eckenrode and colleagues, may be the first to demonstrate a significant association between increases in income inequality and increases in child maltreatment rates in counties across the US. This effect remained significant even after adjustments were made for county-level variations in child poverty and state variations in child maltreatment rates. The impact of income inequality was also greatest in counties with the highest rates of child poverty.

Countless studies have demonstrated that poverty is especially harmful to children during the early years of life. 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. 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. Linked to a host of negative outcomes, poverty is often considered the single best predictor of child maltreatment. According to the Fourth National Incidence Study, children in low socioeconomic status (SES) families were seven times more likely to be neglected and three times more likely to be abused when compared to children from higher SES families. While the negative impact of poverty on child development and risk for child maltreatment are well-documented, less is known about the possible relationship between income inequality and child maltreatment.

Previous research has shown links between income inequality and indicators of health and well-being, including rates of preterm birth, infant mortality, low birth weight and injuries. These findings add to the growing body of research suggesting that income inequality has a unique impact on a range of outcomes for children. As the authors point out, its important to consider approaches to reducing income inequality in future child maltreatment prevention efforts.