An increase in the US unemployment rate leads to a significant rise in child neglect or the parental inability to provide for their children’s basic needs, causing harm to their health, safety and/or wellbeing. That is the central finding of research by Dan Brown and Elisabetta De Cao, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society's annual conference at the University of Warwick in April 2019.


Their study also finds that during the Great Recession, states that were more generous in their social safety nets experienced a lower rise in child neglect in response to higher unemployment. They conclude that policies designed to enable parents’ employment security could prove an important contribution in protecting children from at least some forms of maltreatment, ultimately leading to better outcomes in adulthood.


Child maltreatment is a severe global health problem, the consequences of which extend well into adulthood and have been found to affect mental health, the chances of employment and the likelihood of substance abuse, among other things. Maltreatment includes the physical, sexual or emotional abuse and neglect of a person under the age of 18, and it affects a large part of the most vulnerable population.


In the United States, for example, there were about 674,000 confirmed victims in 2017 alone, equivalent to a rate of 9.1 per 1,000 children. But an overlooked question is the causal effect of economic hardship on child abuse and neglect. The objective of the new study is to fill this gap by identifying the impact of unemployment on child maltreatment in the United States, focusing on a period of great instability, which includes the last financial crisis.


Using nearly a decade of data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System and part of a unique pilot secure micro-data program, the researchers observe every reported incident of child abuse and neglect made to the state Child Protective Services for nearly every US county from 2004 to 2012. They link this dataset to county-level unemployment rates and identify the effect of unemployment on child maltreatment.


The study finds that a one percentage point increase in the unemployment rate leads to a 20% increase in neglect. Neglect is usually defined as parents’ inability to provide for their child’s basic needs causing harm to the child’s health, safety and/or wellbeing.


The researchers show that this significant result captures an effect on the actual incidence of neglect and not reporting behaviour, and it is robust to alternative empirical models. But there does not seem to be a relationship between unemployment and other forms of child abuse.


The study finds indications of a direct mechanism: higher unemployment leads to a decrease in expenditure on basic goods, such as food and beverages. This is because parents have more limited access to the resources required to provide for a child’s basic needs.


The researchers then consider the impact of a social welfare programme in mitigating the effect of unemployment. They focus on unemployment insurance benefits.


Initially offered to people for a maximum of 26 weeks pre-recession, during the Great Recession, the duration of unemployment insurance benefits was extended, ranging from 48 weeks up to 99 depending on the state.


In the most generous states, those offering 87 weeks of unemployment benefits or more, child neglect increased by 14%, while in states that offered a maximum of 55 weeks of benefits, incidents of child neglect rose by 21%.


This reveals a large benefit of the social safety net. During hard economic times, if parents lose their jobs and do not have access to safety nets, they no longer have the means to provide for their children, which ultimately leads to neglect.


The authors conclude:

‘We believe that policies designed to enable parents’ employment security could prove an important contribution in protecting children from at least some forms of maltreatment, ultimately leading to better outcomes in adulthood.’

‘Furthermore, replicating the analysis in contexts where welfare systems are more generous, such as the UK, is potentially very important.