Abstract: Neighborhood Economic Inequality and Child Maltreatment Rates in the US, 2013-2017 (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Neighborhood Economic Inequality and Child Maltreatment Rates in the US, 2013-2017

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Liwei Zhang, PhD, Postdoctoral Associate, Rutgers University, NJ
Cassandra Simmel, PhD, Associate Professor, Rutgers University, NJ
Lenna Nepomnyaschy, PhD, Associate Professor, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Background/Purpose: Studies have explored how neighborhood contexts (e.g., poverty rate, income level, and racial-ethnic compositions) are associated with child maltreatment rates. In recent decades, low- and high-income households are increasingly living in close spatial proximity, leading to more obviously observed inequality within neighborhoods. Research suggests that social comparisons between residents with different socioeconomic backgrounds in a hierarchical and economically polarized community could reduce levels of trust and heighten social tensions, which affect residents’ health and well-being. Many studies have confirmed that inequality is associated with compromised health and well-being for not only low-income individuals, but almost everyone. However, much less is known about the effects of neighborhood-level inequality on parents’ caregiving abilities and child maltreatment, particularly on different types of child maltreatment.

If neighborhood inequality influences child maltreatment rates differently by maltreatment types, then community-based child protection policies could be put in place to target specific challenges and needs of families and children living in such neighborhoods. Only one empirical study examined the link using data over 2005-2009, and found that higher income inequality at the county-level, independent of neighborhood poverty rates, was significantly related to higher overall child maltreatment rates. Our study, building on this prior work by using more recent data (2013-2017) and exploring different types of maltreatment, examines the associations of county-level inequality with overall maltreatment and specific types of maltreatment rates in the US in an era in which income inequality is on the rise.

Methods: We utilized data from approximately 3,000 U.S. counties by linking the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) with the American Community Survey using unique county identifiers. The NCANDS is an administrative dataset of all child maltreatment investigations annually from state child protective service agencies. County-level overall child maltreatment rates, and types of maltreatment (physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect) were calculated by dividing the count of substantiated or indicated victims by the child population. We operationalized neighborhood inequality using 5-year estimates of county-level Gini coefficients over 2013-2017. A set of county-level characteristics—poverty rate, percentages of non-Hispanic African American, Hispanic, and individuals with college degrees or higher—were included in the analyses. Ordinary Least Squares regression models were conducted to examine the relationship between Gini coefficients and child maltreatment rates.

Results: County-level Gini coefficients were significantly associated with higher overall child maltreatment rates as well as physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect rates over 2013-2017, after controlling for county-level characteristics. We also found significant interaction effects between Gini coefficients and poverty rate in the associations with emotional and sexual abuse rates, suggesting that the effects of inequality are exacerbated by county-level poverty.

Conclusions and Implications: We find that neighborhood inequality increases all types of child maltreatment, and that the effects of inequality for emotional and sexual abuse may be exacerbated by neighborhood poverty. Given the tremendous increases in inequality in the US over recent decades, further research is needed to understand the mechanisms of how inequality impact parents’ caregiving abilities in highly unequal communities.