Abstract: Patterns of Family Poverty Exposure and the Relationship with Trajectories of Child Maltreatment Risk (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Patterns of Family Poverty Exposure and the Relationship with Trajectories of Child Maltreatment Risk

Friday, January 22, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Liwei Zhang, PhD, Postdoctoral Associate, Rutgers University, NJ
Cassandra Simmel, PhD, Associate Professor, Rutgers University, NJ
Background and Purpose: Ample research has documented how poverty disrupts parents’ caregiving abilities and increases risk of child maltreatment. However, both poverty exposure and parenting are dynamic and are not necessarily fixed in time. Unstable income, changes in relationship status, and precarious employment all mark the lives of low-income U.S. families in recent decades. These fluctuations and uncertainties lead many families to cycle in and out of poverty repeatedly, while others live in poverty persistently. Distinct poverty experiences (e.g., chronic vs. episodic poverty) may shape parenting and child maltreatment risks differently over time. Yet this dynamic association between poverty exposure and child maltreatment is not well-understood. In this study, we examine patterns of poverty exposure among families with children from birth to age 9, and how different poverty exposure experiences are associated with trajectories of child maltreatment risk.

Methods: We examined data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (N = 4,897) that followed a cohort of children at childbirth, ages 1, 3, 5, and 9 from 1998 to 2010 in 20 large U.S. cities. Poverty levels were calculated based on the ratio of family income to the federal poverty line (<50%, 50%–100%, 100%–200%, and >200%) at each time point. We operationalized child maltreatment risk using parent-reported physically and psychologically abusive/neglectful behaviors, based on the Conflict Tactics Scale from ages 3 to 9. We conducted latent class analysis (LCA) to identify families’ poverty exposure patterns, and then performed growth curve analysis to examine the associations between latent poverty patterns and trajectories of child maltreatment risk.

Results: The LCA identifies a five-group solution: a never-poor group of families (17%) whose incomes were always above 200% of the poverty line, a near-poor group (18%) whose income was consistently above 100% but below 200% of the poverty line, a repeated-poor group (18%) who cycled in and out of poverty repeatedly, a chronic-poor group (15%) whose income was consistently below the poverty line, and a transient-poor group (32%) whose incomes cycled between all four poverty levels over time.

The growth curve results show significant variations of child maltreatment trajectories by latent poverty groups. At age 3, compared to never-poor children, repeated-poor children had a higher risk of being physically and psychologically abused; chronic-poor children were more likely to experience neglect; transient-poor children had a higher risk of experiencing psychological abuse and neglect. With one exception, from ages 3 to 9, all groups had similarly-decreasing rates of maltreatment risks that contributed to consistent between-group gaps over time. However, the chronic-poor children had a significantly faster-decreasing rate in neglect and closed the gap with never-poor children by age 9.

Conclusions and Implications: These results inform our understanding of the uniqueness of families living in poverty, and that poverty should not be used as a “catch-all” term. For children living in families at or near the poverty line, there might be critical differences in their risk for maltreatment. Policies need to understand families’ specific challenges under different financial situations to promote parents’ caregiving abilities.