Abstract: Estimating the Association of Income Instability and Child Maltreatment (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Estimating the Association of Income Instability and Child Maltreatment

Friday, January 17, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 12, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Emma Kahle Monahan, PhD, Program and Policy Analyst, Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, Madison, WI
Background and purpose: Child maltreatment is a persistent problem in the United States, and low-income families constitute a majority of the child welfare population. The link between income and child maltreatment is well-documented, but one aspect of socioeconomic status that has not been well-examined in association with child maltreatment is income instability. Current evidence indicates that income instability has increased in recent decades. Importantly, income instability is more common amongst low-income families. Thus, income instability is a distinct component of economic well-being worth investigating in relation to child maltreatment. Yet, no study has examined the association of frequent, within-year measures of income instability and child maltreatment.

Methods: This study uses a sample of families in Wisconsin at-risk for child maltreatment to examine the relationship between frequent income instability and child maltreatment. A family is considered “at-risk” for child maltreatment if they have a report to Child Protective Services (CPS) that was opened for an Initial Assessment but closed due to presenting as low-risk for abuse and neglect. First, a large sample of families (N=5,840) is linked to administrative data to investigate the associations of income instability, SNAP instability, and TANF instability – measured quarterly – with child maltreatment, as measured by administrative CPS data. Ordinary least squares (OLS) models and fixed effects models are compared to understand how the association of instability and child maltreatment differs from that of income level and child maltreatment. Second, a survey sample of families (N=727) is linked to administrative data and measures of stress, parenting, and maladaptive behaviors. Income instability is operationalized through the coefficient of variation using quarterly earnings and benefit information, and child maltreatment is measured in the year following the baseline survey using CPS administrative data. OLS regressions estimate the associations of income instability and child maltreatment. Stress, parenting, and maladaptive behaviors are then tested as potential mechanisms of this relationship.

Results: Results from the administrative analysis suggest income instability increases risk for child maltreatment, while income level decreases risk. This association is largely driven by changes in TANF. The survey analysis finds a similar result, in that income instability nearly triples the odds of child maltreatment, even after accounting for income level. Substance abuse partially mediates this association (~18%).

Conclusions and implications: These findings provide clear evidence that income instability has unique effects on child maltreatment beyond the effects of income level alone. Mediation results suggest that income instability is likely influencing child maltreatment through the practical implications of income instability (e.g., housing instability, meeting basic needs) rather than socioemotional factors. However, the mediating role of substance abuse highlights the importance of further examining how substance abuse is related to income instability. Overall, the results demonstrate the importance of considering income instability separate from income level in future research, policies, and practices designed to address child maltreatment.