Recent Study Links Child Maltreatment to Self-Sufficiency Gap

A study conducted in California over seven years that examined the relationship between unemployment and child maltreatment was recently published, and showed rather surprising results. The study encompassed all 58 counties of California, with a special emphasis on San Mateo, covering the period from 2005 to 2012, which notably includes the years of the deep recession.  What the researchers found was that in 40 of the counties there was no statistically significant relationship between unemployment and out-of-home care cases, but in a full 16 counties (including San Mateo) as the economy improved the rate of child protective services cases increased and as the economy weakened the rate of child services cases declined.  These results are surprising in light of the conventional logic that child maltreatment is worse in a poor economy and decreases once economic conditions improve.

The researchers, through their examination of San Mateo County, identified two factors which could be causing the unexpected relationship between out-of-home care cases and unemployment. The first had to do with the relationship between a family’s eligibility for public assistance as opposed to the family’s ability to support itself.  The researchers found that employed parents were sometimes less able to meet their family’s basic needs than the unemployed, due to something known as the Self-Sufficiency Gap. The Self-Sufficiency Gap encompasses individuals who are ineligible for federal benefits due to their employment, but do not have income sufficient to meet their basic needs. In such a case, employment would be an economic blow to the family, as it would render them ineligible for federal benefits that previously helped them to survive. To this point, the researchers found that as household participation in CalFresh (California’s food stamp program) went up, the number of child maltreatment cases declined. However, once families were no longer eligible for benefits, the rate of child maltreatment cases increased.

The second factor that explains the inverse relationship between employment and child maltreatment is the documented negative effect that poverty has on a child’s mental health, particularly in their early formative years. Researchers have consistently found that increases in economic adversity lead to poorer self-reported mental and physical health, regardless of socioeconomic status or other demographic differences. In particular, the Great Recession of 2007-2009 has led to high levels of food insecurity, which is a stronger factor than poverty for correlation with a higher chance of mood, anxiety, behavioral, and substance disorders. Children born around the time of the Great Recession, who may have mental health symptoms as a result, are only now entering the nation’s school systems where mandated reporters are more likely to be in contact with the child.  Thus, a spike in out-of-home care cases could reasonably be expected as a result. Examined in light of self-sufficiency, instead of just looking at employment, sheds new light on the inadequacies of our remaining safety net programs and suggests that this net must be strengthened to ensure the safety and well-being of our children.

Read the Study