New Research Analyzes the Effects of Foster Care on Children’s Well-Being

New research, published in April analyzes the effectiveness of the foster care system in Michigan.[1] In what is perhaps a surprising result, children who enter the foster care system are better off than their peers who remain with their parents.

A recent study showed that 6% of all American children spend some amount of time in the foster care system. That number is much higher for children of color: 10% of Black children enter the foster care system at some point in their childhood, and 15% of Native American children enter the system at some point.[2]

Economists have been studying foster care outcomes since 2007. Previous research studied foster care outcomes from Illinois and found that foster care hurt children more than leaving children in the home.[3] That study looked at children on the margin – those who were on the boundary between being removed from the home and staying with parents – to show that those who were removed from the home were convicted of crimes at higher rates, and had lower long-term incomes.

This study uses the same research design in Michigan, and suggests the opposite result: these authors found that foster care reduced the likelihood that children were alleged to be victims of abuse by 52%, increased daily school attendance by 6%, and a small decrease in findings of juvenile delinquency.

So why is Michigan so different from Illinois? These authors suggest that Illinois’ foster care system was especially harmful, so rather than foster care in general harming children, Illinois’ implementation of foster care was to blame. As evidence, they show that Illinois children spent the longest amount of time in the system in the country, while Michigan is closer to average.

Another possible explanation is that foster care has simply improved over time. The authors cite to a child trends study which shows that children are now spending less time in the system, and are being placed with family members more often.[4]

What does this mean for those interested in child policy? It’s not quite clear. Hopefully, research like this will prompt other states to look at their own foster care programs to see if they are more like Illinois or Michigan. We know that removing a child from the home is a drastic measure that should only be taken when absolutely necessary. Nothing here suggests that more children should enter foster care, only that in this particular jurisdiction, it is effective for the child on the bubble between removal and remaining in the home.

My takeaway is this: good foster care that helps children is possible. It might look like shorter stays in the system and more placements with family members. It definitely looks like states should be analyzing their foster care systems with the most advanced tools possible, like the ones these economists employed.

[1] Max Gross & E. Jason Baron, Temporary Stays and Persistent Gains: The Causal Effects of Foster Care, American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 14(2): 170–199 (2022).

[2] Emanuel Wildeman, Cumulative Risks of Foster Care Placement by Age 18 for U.S. Children, 2000–2011, PLoS ONE 9(3): e92785 (2014).

[3] Joseph J. Doyle, Jr., Child Protection and Child Outcomes: Measuring the Effects of Foster Care, American Economic Review 97 (5): 1583-1610 (2007) (“the results suggest that children on the margin of placement tend to have better outcomes when they remain at home, especially older children.”).

[4] Child Trends, Child Trends Databank,

SNAP Benefits Reduce Future Criminal Convictions, According to New Empirical Research

Child benefits are in the news, specifically the Child Tax Credit and its future in the Build Back Better plan. Empirical research on welfare benefits can help us understand just what is at stake for the children affected by welfare policies.

A new paper, forthcoming in the Journal of Human Resources, links the availability of SNAP benefits during childhood to future criminal convictions[1]. The result may be unsurprising – more SNAP benefits results in less criminal convictions – but the magnitude of the results and the racial characteristics are extremely interesting.

The authors observed that when SNAP benefits were being rolled out in North Carolina, some places were getting them sooner than others in a staggered, predictable way. This means that some kids, for no reason other than the randomness of the programming, got more benefits than others. This allowed the researchers to observe just how beneficial SNAP is to kids, and whether it affects their future likelihood of criminal convictions.

The magnitude of the results is a bit startling: “Each additional year of FSP availability in early childhood reduces the likelihood of a criminal conviction in young adulthood by 2.5 percent.”[2] One might think that the racial disproportionality of both poverty and incarceration is at play here, and the authors considered this explanation. The percent decrease in criminal convictions is even larger for non-whites. The authors attribute this larger effect to non-white families’ higher participation in the food stamps program.

These results are historical: Food stamps were rolled out in North Carolina in the 1960s and 1970s, but the lessons remain relevant. Children who are well-fed and provided for are less likely to fall into the pipeline to prison. It’s common sense, which these authors have backed up with robust empirical evidence.

Hopefully, as the debates around the Build Back Better bill and child benefits rage on, legislators will consider evidence like this. It may be a way to argue that child benefits are actually the policy of law and order! After all, who doesn’t want healthier kids and less crime?

[1] Here is a link to the author’s webpage, where this paper and others of interest to Children and the Law Blog readers may be found

[2] Barr, Andrew, and Alexander Smith, Fighting Crime in the Cradle: The Effects of Early Childhood Access to Nutritional Assistance, 2020 (working paper)