Pathways Between Economic Hardship and Child Maltreatment
Previous studies have shown inverse associations between various indicators of economic hardship (such as poverty and unemployment) and child maltreatment. However, it is still unclear why and how economic hardship is associated with child maltreatment. To address the gap in the literature, this study explored pathways between economic hardship and child maltreatment by expanding the Family Economic Stress Theory (FEST) which proposes the effect of economic hardship on family functioning through a chain of economic pressure, parental mental health, and parenting practice.
Information on economic hardship and maternal characteristics was collected from 2,707 mothers who participated in the three year and five year Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study core and in-home interviews. Childhood maltreatment risk at child age of five years was assessed by the Child Protective Service contact history and by severe parental discipline that was in the top tenth percentile of the Conflict Tactics Scale-Parent Child Version subscale scores. Economic hardship was measured by maternal unemployment and total household income at child age of three years. We included economic pressure (e.g., unmet material needs, economic adjustments), maternal depressive symptoms (CIDI-SF), parental involvement, and parenting stress (PSI) at child age of three years as mediating variables. The analysis involved structural equation modeling using the WLSMV estimator in Mplus 7 to test pathways between economic hardship and child maltreatment risk. We performed a confirmatory factor analysis with a latent construct of child maltreatment risk followed by identification of a structural model based on the FEST perspective.
The final model displayed a good fit (RMSEA = .028; CFI = .946; TLI = .912) which supported the FEST model. The results confirmed that economic hardship constitutes child maltreatment risk through a chain of mediating variables. Specifically, economic hardship increased economic pressures. In turn, mothers who felt economic pressure reported more depressive symptoms. Heightened levels of maternal depressive symptoms resulted in a lower level of parental involvement and a higher level of parenting stress which then resulted in the increased risk of child maltreatment. Additionally, we explored direct effects of economic hardship and economic pressures on depressive symptoms and child maltreatment risk. Consistent with the family economic stress perspective, economic pressure played a more important role than economic hardship in affecting family functioning.
Implications and Conclusion
This study helps further our understanding of the pathways of economic hardship on child maltreatment risk. Although economic hardship had a modest direct effect on child maltreatment risk, the effect of economic hardship on child maltreatment was mediated by economic pressure, psychological well-being, and parenting behavior. Furthermore, the findings from this study highlighted the significance of economic pressure on maternal psychological well-being and child maltreatment risk. Diminishing economic pressure by addressing a family's unmet material needs such as food insecurity or difficulty with paying mortgage/rent may be effective to reduce depressive symptoms and the risk of child maltreatment.