Poverty and Child Abuse- Not a simple equation

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povertyA few weeks ago, CNN reporter John D. Sutter published a major article on the prevalence of poverty in one of the richest areas in the US, Silicon valley.  Poverty levels are linked to a variety of problems for children; lower educational levels, poor health, poor hygiene, hunger, and child abuse and neglect.  It is easy to see poverty not just as a connection but a direct cause for some of these problems.  Hunger, for example, seems obviously connected to money.  If you don’t have the money to buy food for your family, then your kids will go hungry.

Many people may assume child abuse has the same type of causality.  For these people, it is obvious poor people abuse their kids more in much the same way that poor people obviously commit more crimes or take more drugs.  At first glance, the data backs up this assumption.  The rates of reported child abuse cases are much more prevalent in lower income families.  If that is the case, then perhaps one of the suggestions by Mr. Sutter at the end of the article could help lessen the incidents of child abuse.  His suggestion, a “livable income,” while certainly not a novelty, is to simply give poor people money as a type of wage for simply being alive.  It is enticing in its simplicity; cash to the poor equals less poor people.  So if that works, is it also true that simply giving poor people money, thus making them not as poor, would drastically reduce the rate of child abuse and neglect?  If poverty is linked to child abuse and neglect, then getting rid of poverty would get rid of abuse.

To answer this question, a deeper dive into the statistics and the causes of child abuse is necessary.  In 2014, Angelo McClain, the Executive Director of the National Association of Social Workers, testified before Congress that “[f]amilies that are grappling with unemployment, hunger and affordable housing are under tremendous stress, raising the odds children in these families will experience abuse or neglect.”  Poverty creates stress and higher stress levels lead to higher abuse and neglect levels.  One organization estimated in 2007 that families with an income less than $15k were 22 times more likely to experience abuse than families with an income over $30k.  One researcher from Cornell believes that if “income inequality were to drop by 10% we would see about a 15% drop in the number of mistreated children reported to child protective services.”

These articles all hint at a connection between poverty and child abuse but poverty is usually listed as a risk factor but not as a direct cause.  Being poor can inflict a great many challenges on a family from increased stress to hunger but there is a danger in linking poverty directly to abuse because it reduces the problem to a simple equation that poor equals abuse.  This is a dangerous assumption as it creates two groups; those with money and an “other” group without money and therefore without the means to control their actions.  Courts tend to agree with this sentiment as a 2014 American Bar Association article noted that many decisions agree with one judge who wrote that “poverty alone is not a basis for termination.”  Giving the poor money might reduce the risk of child abuse, especially neglect, but it will not end child abuse because the issue is much more complicated than simple dollars and cents.  If it was just about money, then this gives those with money and resources the excuse to take children away from any poor parents simply for being poor.  While Mr. Sutter should be applauded for raising this issue, interested parties should spend time researching the issue before assuming there is any one cause and any one solution.





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