Abstract: Uncovering the Role of Neighborhood Inequality in Shaping Child Maltreatment Risk (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Uncovering the Role of Neighborhood Inequality in Shaping Child Maltreatment Risk

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Liwei Zhang, PhD, Postdoctoral Associate, Rutgers University, NJ
Lenna Nepomnyaschy, PhD, Associate Professor, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Cassandra Simmel, PhD, Associate Professor, Rutgers University, NJ
Background/Purpose: Extensive research has documented the associations of household economic resources (e.g., income; material hardship) with parents’ caregiving abilities and children’s maltreatment risk. A relatively smaller body of work examines contextual factors, such as neighborhood poverty, median income, and racial composition in maltreatment risk. Evidence is even more limited about the role of economic inequality, which has increased substantially in the US over the past decade. Unlike an economically segregated neighborhood, reflecting lower variability in household income levels, a highly unequal neighborhood is distinguished by both high and low socioeconomic levels, but fewer households in the middle. On the one hand, unequal neighborhoods may increase access to community services and labor market opportunities for lower-income individuals, leading to better parenting and lower maltreatment risk. On the other hand, unequal neighborhoods may lead to discrimination, increased surveillance, and higher cost of living for lower-income individuals, as well as chronic stress related to social differentiation and hierarchy, which could increase parental stress and maltreatment risk. Guided by the ecological systems theory, this study examines the relationship between neighborhood-level inequality and child maltreatment risk, paying particular attention to the cross-level interactions between neighborhood inequality and family’s socioeconomic background.

Methods: We used three waves of panel data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a population-based birth cohort study of 4,898 children born in large US cities in 1998-2000. Analyses used pooled cross-sections of data collected when children were 3-, 5-, and 9-year old. Child maltreatment was operationalized via primary caregivers’ (primarily mothers’) self-reports of child protective services (CPS) involvement and parenting behaviors (based on physical, psychological, and neglectful behaviors from the Parent-Child Conflict Tactics Scale), and frequency of spanking as proxies for child maltreatment risk.

Neighborhood inequality at each wave was measured based on Gini coefficients (low/medium/high) of 2,631 census tracts. Families’ low-income status was defined as household income below 200% of the federal poverty level. We identified six mutually-exclusive groups to capture the intersection between neighborhood inequality and family income. A rich set of family- and neighborhood-level characteristics were included in our analyses.

Results: A series of random-effects models were estimated to test the associations between neighborhood inequality, family low-income status, and child maltreatment risk. We found that children of non-low-income parents who resided in low-Gini neighborhoods had the lowest maltreatment risk, while low-income children living in high-Gini neighborhoods had the highest risk. Subsequent analyses will explore differences in associations by child age, child sex, and family structure to identify which families and children are particularly at risk.

Conclusions and Implications: Mirroring existing research on the effects of inequality on individual health and well-being, our results suggest that child maltreatment is affected not just by absolute resources at the family- or neighborhood-level, but by the unequal distribution of such resources in their communities. Our findings shed light on potential strategies to address child maltreatment by focusing on the intersection of neighborhood- and family-level factors.