By Henry T. Puls and Paul J. Chung
The big idea
State financial investments in public benefit programs for low-income families are associated with less child abuse and neglect, also known as maltreatment. These investments are also associated with less need for foster care and abuse-related deaths, according to our recent publication in the journal Pediatrics.
Our study examined the relationship between states’ child abuse rates and their annual spending per person living in poverty on major benefit programs from 2010 to 2017. Benefit programs included those that provided money, a housing or material resources, child care assistance, refundable earned income tax credits, and medical assistance programs such as Medicaid.
Our results indicate that an increase of $ 1,000, or 13%, in annual spending per person living in poverty on these programs in all 50 states and Washington, DC, could be associated with about 181,000 fewer children reported for. abuse, 28,500 fewer victims, 4,100 fewer foster children and 130 fewer children dying – every year.
Our results also suggest that reducing child abuse could provide long-term fiscal returns for states and society. The 13% increase in spending was $ 46.5 billion nationally. We estimate that these reductions could yield $ 1.5 billion to $ 9.3 billion in avoided economic burdens associated with child abuse in the short term, but $ 25.8 billion to $ 153.2 billion over the lifespan of children.
Why is this important
We believe our study serves as an example of how benefit programs could have positive effects beyond their stated objectives. Benefit programs are likely to have powerful, widespread, and unmeasured effects on a multitude of health problems – the combined impacts of which could eclipse those seen only for child abuse.
What is not yet known
A more nuanced understanding of how benefit programs might prevent child abuse is needed. Poverty is not evenly distributed among all children in the United States, and how these programs might affect child abuse and other health-related disparities in specific populations remains unknown.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have resulted in an increased risk of child abuse. But it remains unclear whether economic relief, such as the CARES law and eviction protections, helped reduce some of the perceived risk, if at all.
More recently, the American Rescue Plan Act brought direct economic relief to Americans and made fundamental changes to tax credits, such as the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit. These changes have increased family incomes and, in some cases, more evenly distributed benefits to Americans with lower incomes. President Biden’s U.S. Plan for Families proposes to expand these tax credit reforms and further invest in child care and preschool education. It will be essential to consider how these policy shifts for the benefit of programs might influence poverty, child abuse and general well-being.
Our results give optimism that public service programs can not only lift families out of poverty, but also fight child abuse and improve health more generally.