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.