Economic factors drive child neglect. Child tax credits are only part of the solution.

February 11, 2021
Child neglect will require a wide-ranging solution. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Child neglect will require a wide-ranging solution. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Child welfare policies must take a more holistic approach to tackling high rates of child neglect in the U.S., researchers argue in a new paper, suggesting bipartisan efforts to expand child tax breaks may only solve some of the root causes and possibly create new unintended problems.

In the paper, published Jan. 29 in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, the researchers propose a new “synergistic” model for child welfare in which administrators of welfare benefits like Medicaid coordinate with state and local child welfare services to consider policies that address financial instability, which can lead to a lack of safe and consistent care for children.

Although rates of physical and sexual abuse of children have dropped significantly in recent years, rates of neglect still remain high, comprising nearly three-fourths of all reports of child maltreatment in the U.S. In all, 1,809 children died in the U.S. from abuse and neglect in fiscal year 2019, up from 1,751 a year earlier.

Despite efforts to curb child neglect, federal, state and local agencies are often too siloed within their own sets of policy goals that fail to address financial difficulties of families in a way that translates to improved conditions for children, said Kerri Raissian, a co-author of the paper and associate professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut.

For example, she said, child protective services departments in many states primarily exist as a response to reports of child maltreatment rather than in prevention of such cases, while agencies that administer welfare benefits are generally not responsible for reducing child neglect.

“CPS will never be equipped to deal with this in any meaningful, long-term way,” regardless of any good intentions, Raissian told The Academic Times, because the child protection departments aren't in the business of fixing financial hardship and don't have the budget to fix systemic issues of financial security. 

“But lucky for us," she said, "We actually have lots of programs that are set up to deal with that,” like the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Earned Income Tax Credit programs, which provide cash assistance and tax breaks for certain families, as well as Medicaid and public housing assistance. 

“What we would like to see is these programs that are set up to deal with financial insecurity to also understand that their role is to help families thrive, which means to help them to not perpetrate neglect as well,” Raissian said.

New congressional plans to increase income tax credits for families could be a potent solution that would substantially reduce rates of child neglect, Raissian and her colleagues wrote, noting that simulations by the National Academy of Sciences show that a $3,000 tax cut per child per year could reduce child poverty by 50%.

On Monday, House Democrats unveiled plans that would increase the child tax credit to as much as $3,600 per child each year, up from $2,000, as part of their COVID-19 relief bill; last week, Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, of Utah, also proposed a new child tax credit.

The plans differ in several important ways. For example, some Democrats wish to get rid of a decades-old provision that beneficiaries of the break must earn a certain amount of income, a notion Senate Republicans have balked at. Additionally, Romney’s proposal, which provides larger direct payments to families, would shrink other programs and tax credits, such as TANF and the EITC, in order to offset its price tag.

While a net gain in direct assistance to families would be a “really positive step forward,” Raissian said, it’s likely that reducing existing programs would leave behind some recipients of those benefits, especially if new benefits are gated by work requirements and other stipulations.

“The child tax credit is not going to solve all issues,” Raissian said. “It’s going to help, but housing is pretty expensive. Medicaid is pretty expensive. Family leave is pretty expensive … What I don’t see this policy doing is for us to understand all of the ways that the social safety net touches a person’s life and understand holistically how those different programs are achieving goals.”

Even with the new tax breaks, Raissian said, it is necessary for various agencies to come together to treat income insecurity as a prime cause of child neglect and try to reduce it in that way. Previous research, including the authors’ own empirical studies, found that macroeconomic trends like low minimum wage, low child support income and high unemployment cause higher rates of child neglect.

The authors’ latest paper is a follow-up to an earlier paper in which they called on the international research community to “disrupt child maltreatment” around the world and to examine the issue in the context of underlying economic factors.

“That paper was really trying to make the case that neglect is a really important thing to focus on if what we want to do is reduce child maltreatment,” Raissian explained. “And [the new] paper was our way to show how we might then focus on neglect.” 

The authors stopped short of advocating for a wholesale change of how child protection agencies work or the creation of a new agency dedicated to child neglect. The solution, they said, is a more integrated welfare state that recognizes its part in addressing the problem of neglect, as well as general economic or public health objectives.

By coordinating these policies together in the context of child neglect, agencies may affect better outcomes by mitigating families’ financial difficulties, the authors wrote. 

“One of the reasons that we picked this model is it gives something that agencies can do with a little bit of a philosophy shift,” Raissian said. “And in a lot of ways, many agencies already seek to do this. So this isn’t radical. This is something we could easily do.”

The paper, “The Social Welfare Policy Landscape and Child Protective Services: Opportunities for and Barriers to Creating Systems Synergy,” was published Jan. 29 in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. It was written by Megan Feely, an assistant professor of community organizing at the University of Connecticut’s School of Social Work; Kerri Raissian, an associate professor in the Department of Public Policy at the University of Connecticut; William Schneider, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and Lindsey Bullinger, an assistant professor in the School of Public Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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