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Support like child tax credits and basic income reduces child abuse, researchers found

Allie Kelly   

Support like child tax credits and basic income reduces child abuse, researchers found
  • Chronic economic stress increases risks of child maltreatment and neglect.
  • Financial support to low-income families could lower child abuse rates, doctors found.

Cities that offer financial support to low-income families could see a decline in child abuse rates, researchers say.

The study — published in January by doctors at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's PolicyLab — suggests that programs like guaranteed basic income and tax credits limit instances of child abuse and neglect.

If a family experiences chronic economic stress, it amplifies the risk a child will be mistreated, the study found. Each year, nearly four million referrals are made to the US child welfare system, and low-income families are at least three times more likely to be referred.

Black families are also referred to the child welfare system at almost twice the rate of white families at similar risk levels. Welfare referrals can stem from suspected physical harm of a child, sexual abuse of a child, or situations where a child isn't given basic necessities.

The study looked at the financial factors behind these welfare referrals, including income levels, housing security, and access to benefit programs.

And, researchers found that alleviating economic stress for families tangibly improves child safety.

"It's a space where there's a lot of opportunity for advocacy to help keep kids safe in a way that we had not thought about a couple of decades ago," Dr. Sabrina Darwiche, a coauthor on the study, told Business Insider.

Economic stress creates risk factors for abuse

Darwiche is a pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and specializes in cases of child abuse. She said poverty is a factor behind many cases of abuse and neglect.

For example, she said child hospitalizations for severe head trauma spiked during the 2008 financial crisis.

Even so, the majority of welfare reports come from suspected neglect, not physical abuse.

Families in poverty risk being reported for child neglect even when abuse isn't present, Darwiche said. Neglect reports are often caused by a child not receiving adequate childcare, food, housing, or hygiene.

If a family is referred to child welfare, parents could lose custody. But Darwiche said the welfare system in America is not built to support families in poverty.

"It's really like a vicious cycle that can lead to a lot of intergenerational trauma and intergenerational economic stress," she said.

Financial safety nets could reduce child neglect

Darwiche called income support a prevention strategy for child abuse. This can include SNAP benefits, affordable housing, Medicaid, and cash transfers.

She said financial assistance programs alleviate stress that could lead to violence and maltreatment toward a child. It also gives parents the safety net they need to leave unsafe living situations and afford basic necessities for themselves and their families.

"That's why these different economic and social welfare programs are so exciting because they are an opportunity to prevent those situations in the first place," Darwiche said, referring to cash transfers — which allow families to spend money where they need it most. Most other social services limit spending to specific categories.

BI has reported that guaranteed basic income can help low-income families secure housing and pay for groceries. Cities like San Antonio, Austin, and Denver have piloted GBI, despite political opposition.

Basic income offers low-income individuals no-strings cash payments for a set period of time. Program participants — who typically live below the federal poverty line — receive between $100 and $1,000 a month for one to three years. Participants have reported using the money to afford food and rent, pay off debt, and buy school supplies for their children.

Child tax credits, similarly, allow some families to rise out of poverty by offering ongoing financial relief to adults with dependents. Some families also qualify for earned income tax credits or housing credits.

Additionally, the pandemic prompted the Biden Administration to allocate funding through the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, also known as ARPA. The funds are often distributed via stimulus checks, basic-income programs, or to local governments.

"A bundle" of economic policies can make children safer

Another coauthor of the study, Dr. Zoe Bouchelle, is a pediatrician at Denver Health and does research through the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's PolicyLab. She told BI that reducing child maltreatment requires "a bundle" of economic solutions.

She identified cash and housing assistance programs, affordable childcare, tax credits, and Medicaid expansions as policies that can improve child safety.

"Thinking about other avenues that help support families with these poverty-related needs other than the child welfare system is incredibly important, and — quite frankly — urgent," she said.

Still, Bouchelle said it's important to qualify the findings: the Children's Hospital study is based on information from existing income support or tax programs and nationally recorded child welfare data. It isn't based on the results of a single financial assistance program or a randomized trial.

"There's sort of a constellation of research that everybody has done, and it's building a compelling argument that (economic support) is making kids safer," Darwiche said.