Research Summary: The Role of Economic Setbacks and Hardships in Child Welfare Involvement

New research has found that family economic setbacks and lack of access to basic economic needs predict child welfare involvement—and that economic policies that soften financial “shocks” and hardship can reduce maltreatment and child protective involvement.

Chapin Hall synthesized this research in an amazing slide deck. Below are some highlights that suggest ways for New York City to better use the levers of economic policy and neighborhood investment, rather than individual-focused monitoring and services, to more effectively support families. (Please see slides 140-159 in Chapin Hall’s slide deck for citations.)

Research Highlights

  • Economically insecure children are indicated for maltreatment 3-9 times more maltreatment than economically secure children. (Conrad-Hiebner, 2020)
  • Each additional $1,000 that states spend annually on public benefit programs per person living in poverty is associated with reduction of 4.3% in hotline calls, 4% in substantiated maltreatment, 2.1% in removals, 7.7% in child fatalities (Puls, 2021)
  • Material hardship is associated with CPS involvement beyond caregiver psychological distress and parenting factors (Yang, 2015), and the association of individual factors (such as substance abuse or mental health) with maltreatment is reduced after accounting for poverty (Escaravage, 2014), meaning poverty alone is a driving factor
  • A large body of research on guaranteed income programs and other substantial economic support has found positive impacts on child and parent mental health; child well-being, behavior, educational attainment; and parent substance abuse and psychiatric health.
  • Economic support related to COVID appeared to have safely reduced child welfare involvement in NYC and nationwide. 

Preventing Involvement

Income Loss & Economic Hardship

The most reliable economic predictors of child welfare involvement (Conrad-Hiebner, 2020) are:

  • Income Loss
  • Housing Hardship
  • Cumulative Material Hardship

Strongest hardship predictors of investigated neglect reports (Slack, 2011) are:

• Food pantry use  • Difficulty paying rent • Cutting meals • Public benefit receipt • Utility shutoffs  • Short duration of residence • Inability to receive medical care for sick family member


  • A 1% increase in county unemployment rates is associated with a 20% increase in substantiated neglect reports (Brown, 2020)
  • For every 10% decrease in the male employment rate (among 20- to 34-year-olds), the child maltreatment rate rises by 9.62% (Cherry, 2016)
  • During the 2007-09 recession, the rate of abusive head trauma (AHT) for children < 5 years old was significantly higher than during the period immediately before (Berger, 2011) and states that extended unemployment benefits at the onset of the recession saw significantly smaller increases in substantiated reports of child neglect (Brown, 2020)


  • An additional $1,000 spent by states on childcare assistance per person living in poverty is associated with a reduction of 40% in hotline calls, 35% in substantiated maltreatment, 63% in removals, 50% in child fatalities due to maltreatment (Puls, 2021)
  • Each additional month that low-income mothers receive a childcare subsidy is associated with a 16% decrease in the odds of a neglect report in the following 12 months (Yang, 2019)
  • Children who attended Early Head Start had significantly fewer child welfare encounters between ages 5 and 9 than those who didn’t attend and, if reported, were 93% less likely to enter foster care than children without early childhood education (Green, 2014)
  • Waitlists to access subsidized childcare are significantly associated with an increase in investigations (Klevens, 2015)
  • For every additional childcare concern reported by families receiving TANF, the risk of supervisory child neglect increases by 20% (Yang, 2016)

Child Support

  • Child support on top of TANF (without penalty) decreases screened-in hotline calls by 10% and even modest child support (even $100/yr) decreases screened-in reports (Cancian, 2013)


  • Inadequate housing contributes to the risk of entering foster care for 1 out of every 6 children involved in CPS investigations
  • Self-reported housing instability in urban areas is significantly associated with increased risk for neglect, above and beyond poverty
  • Each additional eviction filing per 100 occupied units in a block group is associated with a 2% increase in child maltreatment reports, primarily neglect (Bullinger, 2021)
  • Research on foreclosure may not relate to NYC but this body of work further documents that housing instability predicts abuse, hospital admissions and child welfare investigation risk

Public Benefits (TANF, SNAP, SSI, WIC)


  • Reductions in state public benefit levels (TANF plus food stamps) are associated with higher numbers of children in foster care, while a 10% increase in state public benefit levels for a family of four is predicted to reduce foster care placements by 8% (Paxson, 2002)
  • Studies of states with harsh TANF sanctions show TANF’s protective role: states where parents lost all benefits for not working saw increases of 23.3% in substantiated neglect reports and 12.7% in total foster care entries, and those with lifetime limits under 5 years saw 34.4% increase in substantiated maltreatment (Ginther, 2017)
  • (Two notes on NY: benefit levels haven’t gone down but the real value of TANF has declined 19% in NYC since 1996, and nationwide 63% of TANF recipients participate only 1-12 months.)


  • Low-income children who participate in SNAP or WIC (jointly or alone) have a lower risk of substantiated reports than children who don’t participate in either program (Lee, 2007)
  • Accessibility of stores accepting SNAP benefits (in northeast CT) reduces hotline calls by 4.4% and substantiated maltreatment by 11.3% (Bullinger, 2021)

Notable Additional Findings:

  • Minimum Wage: For every $1 increase in the minimum wage, there was a 9.6% reduction in neglect reports, primarily for children < 12 years (though clearly not in NYC) (Raissian, 2017)
  • Earned Income Tax Credit: $1,000 increase in income via EITC is associated with 8–10% reduction in self-reported CPS involvement for low-income single-mother household (Berger, 2017). States with refundable EITC, compared to those without, had 11% fewer entries into foster care even after controlling for poverty, race, education and unemployment. (Rostad, 2020). 10% increase in refundable state EITC benefits is associated with a 5% decline in any reported maltreatment and 9% decline in reported neglect (Kovsi, 2021).
  • Medicaid: Between 2013 and 2016, the rate of screened-in neglect referrals decreased in states that expanded Medicaid, but increased in states that did not expand Medicaid (Brown, 2019)
  • Paid Family Leave: California’s policy (up to 12 weeks partially paid) was associated with a significant decrease in hospital admissions for abusive head trauma (Klevens, 2016)

For Families Already System-Involved


  • Repeat Investigation: For low-income families with recently closed investigations, income “shocks” (quarterly drop of 30% or more) are associated with 18% increased risk of subsequent investigation and 26% of a physical abuse investigation, with each new earnings shock associated with a 15% greater likelihood of CPS involvement. Access to mitigating public assistance buffers against repeat involvement, especially when kids are 0-4 (12% lower risk of any investigation and 50% lower physical abuse investigation (Cai, 2021)
  • CARES: Low-income families who receive Differential Response (DR) with concrete supports (housing, rent, utilities, food or clothing, appliances, furniture or home repair, etc.) are less likely to experience a repeat call (43.2% v. 52.7%). Also, DR families tend to receive more concrete supports than families in regular investigations. (Loman, 2012)
  • Prevention: Families with open cases (mostly neglect) who receive home-based servicess with concrete supports (averaging $314 per family) are less likely to experience a hotline call. Any concrete support (vs. none) reduces the risk of a subsequent call by almost 17% (Rostad, 2017)
  • Foster Care: Children in foster care take longer to reunify when their mothers lose income after child removal. Every $100 increase in post-placement income increases reunification speed by 6%. Children remaining in foster care after a year whose mothers lost significant cash assistance is more than double those that didn’t whose mothers didn’t (87% vs. 41%). (Wells, 2006)


  • Children in families with housing instability who enter supportive housing show fewer removals (9% vs. 40%) and higher reunifications (30% vs. 9%) than control after 2 years (Farrell, 2018)
  • HUD’s Family Options Study found that permanent housing subsidies (vs. other interventions) for homeless families reduced family separations by 40% and families had less psychological distress, intimate partner violence, child behavior problems (Gubits, 2015)

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