Strong Link Between Poverty and Child Maltreatment

By. Lingchao Chen

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 4.32.42 PMWhile decades of studies have revealed that child maltreatment and poverty are co-occurring and interrelated, “policy and practice are now lagging science in this area.”

In January of this year, researchers Brett Drake and Melissa Jonson-Reid at Washington University at St. Louis, published a comprehensive literature review of the association between poverty and child maltreatment as a chapter in the Handbook of Child Maltreatment.

Drake and Jonson-Reid evaluated 40 years of research from across the country, and confirmed a strong association between poverty and child maltreatment, indicating that child maltreatment could be prevented through poverty reduction.

One of the most comprehensive evaluations discussed in the literature review was the fourth National Incidence Study on Child Abuse and Neglect, which showed that unemployed parents were about three times as likely to maltreat their children as employed parents. And children in low-socioeconomic-status families were about five times as likely to be maltreated.

Drake and Jonson-Reid note that a preoccupation with psychodynamic causality in child maltreatment has caused the earlier tendency to regard poverty and child maltreatment as unrelated. Psychodynamic approaches tend to restrict key factors to the parent, child and the immediate family, ascribing the maltreatment behaviors to emotions, personalities and unconscious motives, not the effect of the environment in which they live.

Although relationship between poverty and child maltreatment is widely recognized, policymakers and practitioners are still reluctant to prevent initial child maltreatment with economic intervention due to lacking explanation for the causality. Once the causal paths are better defined, policymakers will be forced to question the efficacy of prevention plans that hinge on poverty reduction.

Lingchao Chen is a student of public policy at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. She wrote this story while taking a course entitled Media for Social Change. 

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