Further, the mechanism underlying the longitudinal link remains unexplored. Food insecurity—namely the ability of an individual or household to procure adequate amounts of food and nutrition in socially acceptable ways—is a critical indicator of low income or impoverishment. When parents are exposed to unstable income, their ability to consistently provide secure food and nutrition could be disrupted. Such experience, in turn, may have a profound and lasting impact on behavioral functioning in adolescence. In this study, we examine (1) how income instability during the first five years after childbirth are associated with subsequent behavioral functioning at age 15; (2) how household- and child-level food insecurity may serve as mediators of the link.
Methods: We used data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (N = 3,437), a longitudinal study that followed a cohort of children at birth, ages 1, 3, 5, and 15 in 20 large US cities from 1998 to 2017. Adolescents’ behavioral health outcomes were examined at age 15 via parent-reported internalizing and externalizing behaviors. Income instability was operationalized based on the direction (positive or negative income changes of more than 33% between waves) and the magnitude (incidence and frequency). We measured household- and child-level food insecurity based on the US Department of Agriculture Food Security Survey. Structural Equation Modeling was utilized to test the direct and indirect effects of income instability on behavioral outcomes through food insecurity. We also controlled for average household income and a series of sociodemographic characteristics (e.g., race/ethnicity) in the analysis.
Results: The results suggest no statistically significant direct association between early childhood income instability and internalizing and externalizing behavior in adolescence. However, we found an indirect link between the two, with household- and child-level food insecurity operating as mediators. For example, after controlling for average household income and sociodemographic characteristics, each additional episode of income decrease was associated with worse household food insecurity (b = 0.12, p < .01), which in turn, contributed to higher internalizing (b = 0.04, p < .001) and externalizing behavior (b = 0.03, p < .010) at age 15.
Conclusions and Implications: The results suggest the substantial role of food insecurity in linking early childhood income instability with subsequent behavioral outcomes. The results also added to the literature on how multiple episodes of income change could have more harmful effects than a sole income decrease does in affecting food insecurity. Findings shed light on the importance of policies and programs to promote economic stability during early childhood and to ensure food security in nurturing children’s short- and long-term well-being.