Abstract: Parent-to-Child Maltreatment Mediates the Association between Income Instability and Children's Externalizing and Internalizing Behaviors (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

Parent-to-Child Maltreatment Mediates the Association between Income Instability and Children's Externalizing and Internalizing Behaviors

Friday, January 14, 2022
Marquis BR Salon 7, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Liwei Zhang, PhD, Postdoctoral Associate, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, NJ
Yuerong Liu, PhD, Postdoctoral Associate, Duke University, Durham, NC
Background and Purpose: Ample research has examined how point-in-time or static measures of economic deprivation, such as poverty and low income, are associated with disrupted socioemotional well-being in children. However, less is known about the relationship between unstable income and children’s socioemotional outcomes. Recent work has indicated that income instability does have a remarkable impact on family well-being that is different from static income level does. Indeed, the unpredictable nature of income instability may inhibit children’s sense of emotional security, leading to difficulties in socioemotional functioning. Based on the Family Stress Model, income instability may also induce parental stress and disrupt parents’ caregiving abilities, putting children at increased risk of maltreatment. Yet, the relationship between income instability and socioemotional functioning and its underlying mechanism is under-investigated. In this study, we examine: (1) how income instability (i.e., the incidence and frequency of upward and downward income changes) during childhood are associated with subsequent socioemotional problems (i.e., externalizing and internalizing behavior) in adolescence; and (2) how parent-to-child maltreatment may mediate this relationship.

Methods: We used data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a population-based cohort study of 4,898 children born in large US cities in 1998-2000. Data were collected at childbirth, ages 1, 3, 5, 9, and 15. Children’s socioemotional outcomes were examined at age 15 via parent-reported internalizing and externalizing behaviors. Income instability was operationalized based on the incidence and frequency of positive or negative income changes of more than 33% between waves by age 5. Child maltreatment was operationalized via primary caregivers’ self-reports of parenting behaviors at age 9, based on physical, psychological, and neglectful behaviors from the Parent-Child Conflict Tactics Scale. Structural Equation Modeling was utilized to test the direct and indirect effects of income instability on socioemotional outcomes through child maltreatment. We also controlled for average household income and a set of sociodemographic characteristics (e.g., race/ethnicity) in the analysis as covariates.

Results: We found a direct association between income instability and socioemotional outcomes, with each additional episode of income decrease associated with higher internalizing behavior (b = 0.04, p < .05), after controlling for the covariates. We also found an indirect link between income instability and socioemotional outcomes, through physical and psychological abuse. Specifically, children who ever experienced income decrease by age 5 were at higher risk of experiencing physical abuse (b = 0.09, p < .001) and psychological abuse (b = 0.03, p < .05) than those without exposure to income decrease, which in turn, contributed to higher externalizing and internalizing behavior at age 15.

Conclusions and Implications: Mirroring existing research on the effects of income instability on family well-being, our results suggest that children’s socioemotional well-being is affected not just by a family’s income level, but by unstable income. The results suggest the substantial role of child maltreatment in linking childhood income instability with subsequent socioemotional outcomes. Our findings shed light on the importance of supporting optimal parenting by not only helping families exit poverty temporarily, but improving their economic security.