- In the coming weeks, some children will be facing long periods of time at home with parents who may have mental health and substance abuse problems that will only be exacerbated by this crisis. Tweet This
- A new study finds that there is a large difference between outcomes for kids who grew up in poverty and those whose parents were investigated for abuse or neglect. Tweet This
Over the next few months, we will hear a lot about how already vulnerable populations have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The New York Times reports on one family that is dependent on the meals provided by a local school for their six kids since the mother is disabled and doesn’t work, while the father’s carpentry business has fallen off in the crisis.
She told the Times: “If we didn’t have this, I probably would have a mental breakdown with stress,” she said of the free meals at [the school]. “I’m not going to let my kids go hungry. If I have to just eat once a day, that’s what I have to do.”
Kids who grow up in poverty generally have worse outcomes in life than those who don’t. The fact that these six kids are living with two parents who care for them enough to skip meals (in the mother’s case) in order to make sure the kids are fed is a sign that they will probably be okay.
But there is another group of kids at greater risk during times of crisis—those who have had involvement with the child welfare system. During the best of times, these children are by definition at risk. In the coming weeks, they will be facing long periods of time at home with parents who may have mental health disorders and substance abuse problems that will only be exacerbated by this crisis. Moreover, they won’t have adults at school to monitor their well-being or ensure they are being cared for and fed. The pandemic will also put a strain on foster families, likely decreasing the number of kids they can take in. And the outcomes for this group will likely be significantly worse.
In an insightful new paper called “It’s Not ‘Just Poverty’: Educational, social and economic functioning among young adults exposed to childhood neglect, abuse, and poverty,” Sarah Font of Pennsylvania State University and Kathryn Maguire-Jack of the University of Michigan compare 29,154 people born between 1993 and 1996 in Milwaukee County who were either receiving food assistance or reported to CPS before the age of 16.
What they found is that there is a large difference between outcomes for kids who grew up in poverty and those whose parents were investigated for abuse or neglect. Take, for instance, the percentage of these children who would graduate high school by age 20. Of kids who received food assistance, 77.53% graduated, compared to 63.59% whose parents were alleged to have neglected them or 59.10% of those who have been alleged to have abused and neglected them.
Or what about the percentage of these children who ended up in state prison by the age of 20? Only 1.81% of children who were on food stamps did time in state prison before the age of 20, compared with 2.92% of those whose parents were investigated for abuse, 3.92% of those whose parents were investigated for neglect, and 4.85% of those who were investigated for abuse and neglect.
Finally, 12.85% of those who grew up with poverty experienced teen pregnancy. That number jumped to 18.10% for those who experienced alleged neglect, 23.49% for those who experienced alleged neglect and abuse, and 15.99% for those who experienced alleged abuse alone. There were also statistically significant differences in employment and average earnings.
Headlines like “‘Poor’ Parenting—When Poverty Is Confused With Neglect”; or “Live in a Poor Neighborhood? Better Be a Perfect Parent”; and “Poverty Isn’t Neglect, But the State Took My Children Anyway” have become ubiquitous in the past couple of years. But it turns out that growing up in poverty and growing up in a home that has been investigated by CPS are sometimes very different things. And dealing with the latter will involve a lot more than giving parents more financial assistance.
Finally, the authors also report that their findings
challenge the perception that neglect is less harmful than abuse. Prior researchers have speculated that this perception may be due to the consequences of abuse being more immediately observable than the consequences of neglect (Dubowitz, 2007). Nevertheless, the divergence in outcomes for neglected youth and impoverished non-neglected youth is significant, at least by early adulthood. Given the prevalence of neglect and the increased risk of adverse outcomes associated with neglect, targeted efforts to prevent and treat the effects of neglect warrant greater priority.
During times of crisis as well as in normal times, we should consider how to best tailor our public policy solutions for all children’s needs. In order to thrive, low-income families may need financial assistance, but some of these families need different kinds of assistance and much higher levels of intervention to promote overall child well-being.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.