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.