A working paper recently published in our Economics Working Paper series, gives preliminary evidence of a link between child neglect and parental unemployment, highlighting the specific effects of economic hardship on children's well-being.
Defined as the physical, mental, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect of a person under the age of 18, child maltreatment is a prolific problem in American society, with about 700,000 cases reported in 2015 alone. Neglect describes a situation when parents’ inability to provide for their child’s basic needs harms the child’s health, safety and/or well-being.
Child maltreatment is widely understood to have significant consequences in later life, affecting mental health, the chances of employment and the likelihood of substance abuse, among other things. However, the causal effects of economic hardship, and the knock-on impact on maltreatment, are significantly less understood.
The first study of its kind suggests that unemployment can cause an increase in child neglect because parents have more limited access to the resources required to provide for a child’s basic needs, such as clothing, food and medical care. The study, conducted by Nuffield College Associate Elisabetta De Cao and Economics DPhil student Dan Brown, has for the first time, considered and quantified these causal effects, specifically whether unemployment causes child maltreatment.
Using nearly a decade’s worth of data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS), produced by the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect (NDACAN), the team observed every reported incident of child abuse and neglect made to the state Child Protective Services for nearly every county in the U.S. from 2004 to 2012.
The findings reveal a significant link between unemployment and child neglect, with a 1 percentage point increase in the unemployment rate leading to a 20 percent increase in reported neglect. However there does not seem to be a relationship between unemployment and other forms of child abuse.
Elisabetta De Cao, Nuffield College Associate and Research Fellow in Oxford’s Centre for Health Service Economics & Organisation, co-authored the working paper, "The impact of unemployment on child maltreatment in the United States." She said: "There is increasing research on the causal effect of economic conditions on domestic violence, but this work has never been done for children, which is a very different dynamic."
The research also considers the value and impact of social (government provided) and private safety nets (partner, family, friends, health insurance), and whether access to these resources can have a mitigating effect on unemployment.
Access to state provided unemployment benefits were found to make a huge difference. Initially offered to people for a maximum of 26 weeks pre-recession, during the economic crisis it was extended in some states, and ranged significantly from 48 weeks to up to 99. In states that were more generous, offering 87 weeks of unemployment benefits or more, child neglect increased by 14% but in states that offered a maximum of 55 weeks of benefits, reported incidents of child neglect rose by 21%.
Although the team studied the effects of unemployment in the USA, they are in the process of replicating the study in the UK, which arguably has a more generous welfare system. The results of this work are expected in the next year.
- This news story was adapted from the University of Oxford's press briefing. Read the full release about this research on the Oxford University website.
- Read the Working Paper
- See our full list of Nuffield College Associates