Income Inequality Associated with Child Maltreatment

According to a study in the upcoming March 2014 issue of Pediatrics, higher rates of child maltreatment are statistically correlated with higher levels of income inequality in counties across the United States. The study compared data on income inequality in more than 3,100 counties nationwide, and found a close association with rates of abuse and neglect as tracked by federal government data. Pediatrics is the peer-reviewed journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Child abuse and neglect have long been linked to poverty. What’s new in this study is the finding that inequality itself may be a factor to consider in addressing abuse and neglect. The lead author, Professor John Eckenrode of Cornell, and his colleagues controlled for a wide array of variables, and found that the statistical effect of inequality “was stronger for counties with moderate to high levels of child poverty.” Nonetheless, across the US, counties with higher rates of income inequality were significantly more likely to have higher rates of abuse and neglect.

“To our knowledge, our study is the first to specifically examine income inequality as an important risk factor associated with child maltreatment,” they write.

Previously, researchers have estimated that nearly 3 million children in the Unites States are physically, sexually or emotionally abused or physically neglected each year. Others have shown the direct linkages between abuse and neglect and long-term mental health problems, substance abuse, risky sexual behavior and criminal behavior, and even lifelong poverty. In the paper to be published in Pediatrics, Eckenrode argues that comprehensive efforts to reduce abuse and neglect may require “advocacy and action at the societal level aimed at reducing income inequality.”