A growing body of research shows that financial assistance reduces stress on parents and lowers child maltreatment rates
Ashley Davis was deeply stressed. In 2019, her 3-year-old son was diagnosed with autism, and doctors recommended therapy that could significantly help. They suggested he attend at least 20 hours per week.
Insurance paid for the therapy, but Davis had to accompany her son to the sessions. As a single mother living in pricey Los Angeles, California on her salary as a beautician and marketer, she struggled to manage that and still work.
But she felt obligated to take him as often as possible. And the therapy helped; he seemed to slide backward when he didn’t meet with the therapist often enough.
“‘Do I buy him new clothes now or wait it out for a few weeks? He can still fit in his pants, they’re just a little short,’” she recalls calculating. “I was too tired even to take him to the park, which is free.”
Acknowledging that taking good care of children should not be such a strain for the working poor, early last year Los Angeles began offering 3,200 parents like Davis $1,000 every month. The city’s yearlong guaranteed basic income pilot program provides participants who have at least one dependent child and are living at or below the federal poverty level with money they can use however they choose.
For Davis, the income has had a major impact. Knowing that rent payments and bills will be covered has given her peace of mind, and she’s also able to give her son more attention.
“I feel like I’m a much better parent,” she said.
The model of no-strings-attached cash aid for poor families has spread nationwide over the past few years, showing positive, early results in lifting low-income families’ circumstances. Now, a growing body of evidence shows such assistance could also help keep families out of the child welfare system — with all of the fear, surveillance, and potential for separation that results from social workers’ visits.
In a study published in July, for example, researchers from Ohio State University, the University of Kansas, and the University of Maryland examined the connection between Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and child maltreatment. They found a clear link between more generous food stamp policies and reductions in families’ involvement with CPS, in terms of reported rates of child neglect, substantiated cases, and use of foster care.
The university professors concluded, “SNAP policy options that increase the generosity and stability of household resources may yield valuable population health returns by preventing child maltreatment and the need for costly child welfare interventions.”
The July study represented the first time SNAP assistance alone had been examined in that way, and it’s significant because food stamps are one of the country’s biggest anti-poverty programs. The study joined several others that have chronicled the beneficial effect of similar public supports, including the Earned Income Tax Credit and Medicaid expansion, on reducing reports of child maltreatment.
Notably, the type of public benefits offered doesn’t seem to make a difference. Whether it’s housing subsidies, child care assistance, or cash aid, there appears to be the same positive effect — reducing CPS reports.
“The mechanism of delivery may not matter,” said Clare Anderson, a senior policy fellow at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall, a research and policy institution focused on child welfare and family well-being. “If every family has childcare, health insurance, a house, and enough resources to meet basic needs, we could probably eliminate a large portion of the need for the child welfare system.”
A 2021 study by Henry Puls, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, quantified the observation. It found that for every additional $1,000 states spent on benefit programs for each person living in poverty, reports of neglect to the child welfare system went down by around 4%, as did reports that were investigated and found to be legitimate. The study also found that child fatalities diminished by almost 8%.
Other researchers have come up with similar numbers. In a 2017 study published in the Children and Youth Services Review, University of Connecticut public policy Professor Kerri Raissian reported that a $1 increase in the minimum wage in her state decreased child neglect reports by almost 10%.
It’s not magic.
As the July SNAP study’s authors put it, “Children in households with low and/or unstable incomes experience heightened risk for child maltreatment compared with children in families with greater incomes and stable household resources.” That’s a well-known fact: The vast majority of families investigated by CPS are low-income, and “neglect” in particular is associated with poverty. Families may be reported for neglect if their housing is substandard or their kids look disheveled, or if they leave young children unattended, perhaps because they can’t afford childcare.
It also makes sense intuitively.
In addition to more explicitly financial reasons, it’s hard to be a patient and present parent when you’re stressed about paying bills and putting food on the table — challenges that even households with no CPS involvement often face.
Before he was enrolled in Stockton, California’s two-year guaranteed income program, “I was struggling,” said resident Tomas Vargas. “I’d come home tired, and my kids never got to see me at all.” The increased household income changed that: “I’m more there for them now,” he said.
There are smaller, but also significant, impacts on children’s lives as well.
Davis’s son turned 6 shortly before she learned that she’d been picked for the city of Los Angeles’ guaranteed income pilot, and at the time, she couldn’t afford to do anything special for his birthday.
“And then I got the email about the program,” she said.
The pilot emerged during the pandemic to reduce child poverty, build intergenerational wealth and counteract the impacts of racial inequality. “I was like, ‘Let’s go to Legoland.’ And he lit up there.”
Historically, public policies designed to protect children from harm have been separate from programs that address poverty. And for the most part, they continue to be administered as if they’re two unrelated issues.
What’s more, child welfare workers typically aren’t trained to think about the broader economic context that results in the conditions they regularly witness. Nor do they usually have tools to help families improve their financial situations, said Lonnie Berger, a professor in the school of social work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who focuses on the nexus of poverty and parenting.
But the message is beginning to resonate throughout the child welfare field’s upper levels.
“We’re at a point where state commissioners or secretaries of departments of children and families are starting to hear this,” Berger said.
Several states have begun to define child “neglect” more narrowly, so that kids don’t get swept into foster care just because their parents are poor.
And according to researchers at Chapin Hall, a growing number of states have begun offering financial support to families at risk of involvement with CPS. Kentucky’s 2022 state budget, for example, included $1,000 to help families with children at risk of removal fill financial holes and meet critical needs. Indiana offers assistance with rent, utilities, food and transportation for families in danger of separation due to unmet basic needs. And New York State’s Family First Prevention Services Act, passed in early 2022, includes economic support to families with the goal of keeping children in their homes.
In Washington, DC, a guaranteed income pilot will put cash in the hands of mothers who have an open case with the district’s Child and Family Services Agency. The project, Mother Up, is run by the DC-based nonprofit Mothers Outreach Network, which is using private funding for the initiative and currently recruiting participants. For an early “micropilot,” the program will give 20 to 40 Black mothers in the city $500 a month and track their outcomes. Later, it hopes to expand to a much bigger, three-year project with a robust research component.
Anderson at Chapin Hall and others credit the federal assistance sent to families during the pandemic — and the success it had in keeping many Americans out of poverty during that time — with widening public acceptance of cash benefits. The Child Tax Credit offered during the early years of the pandemic, for example, is credited with cutting child poverty by almost one half before it ended in 2021. And dozens of guaranteed income pilots are operating in cities around the country.
Still, advocates failed to get the Child Tax Credit renewed in 2022. And with conservatives in charge of one house of Congress this year, it will likely be some time before any new, publicly-funded benefits are provided for families in need.
Meanwhile, local initiatives are increasingly taking shape. Melody Webb is the executive director of Mothers Outreach Network. As a lawyer who worked for years with families in the child welfare system, she gradually became convinced that money, not services, was what most of them needed.
“It was so striking to note that they were essentially the most vulnerable people, living in poverty, who’d gotten swept up in a system that does too little to assist them,” Webb said. “The culture needs to change from one of throwing services at them to putting cash in their hands, letting them do what they know is best for their family’s well being.”