Economic Reform is About More than Money; It's About Strengthening Families

Economic Reform is About More Than Money;
It's About Strengthening Families


In 2014, over 700,000 children under age 18 were victims of child abuse and neglect.i Over a child's lifetime, one out of every eight U.S. children will experience confirmed maltreatment by child protective services before their 18th birthday.ii These numbers are unacceptable and demand action. President Trump and his administration need to be acutely aware of the connection between events like the Great Recession and the current opioid epidemic and the recent increases in maltreatment reports nationally. The decisions they make regarding fiscal policy will impact more than a family's pocketbook.

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The most powerful predictor of child maltreatment is poverty, and nearly 15 million children live in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold. This new administration has an opportunity to help strengthen families and communities and protect children from maltreatment through economic policy. We encourage President Trump to aggressively pursue economic policies that promote child well-being and strengthen communities. History and research indicate that such reforms are needed to address the multiple ways economic hardship increases risk for maltreatment.

Maltreatment rates decreased greatly through the 1990s and into the 2000s mainly due to a strong economy and reductions in child poverty.iii However, during the Great Recession, there were increases in some types of maltreatment, attribuatable largely to increases in child poverty.iv Economic inequality also increases maltreatment rates. U.S. counties with higher income inequality have higher rates of maltreatment regardless of income.v Policies that support family income, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, are directly related to reductions in financial stress, leading to safe and stable homes.

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Poor families are more likely to live in neighborhoods that are impoverished, with fewer employment opportunities, greater exposure to traumatic violence, and families that are more isolated from extended support systems. These realities erode the social fabric of communities, schools, and families. Children residing in these high-risk communities are disproportionately represented in child protective Impoverished neighborhoods are more sensitive to economic policies that fail to prioritize child well-being. Continuing to fund research-supported programs that reach families most in need will complement any economic reform policy by supporting families facing the biggest challenges.vii

What we need is more comprehensive economic and social policy that prevents family poverty and disrupts its pernicious links to maltreatment. Policies designed to create jobs and spur economic growth are important components, yet we must take additional steps to directly target building safe, stable, and nurturing families. Child well-being is one of the most important investments we can make in the future of our nation, and we encourage President Trump to invest in children as a top priority.

The effects of economic inequality on children can even be detected at the individual biological level. The experiences of poverty and maltreatment have been shown to alter brain volume in regions critical for academic success viii and to alter activity in areas responsible for emotional reactions, ix disruptions that may prepare children for surviving in adverse environments but interfere with social and academic achievement. Essentially, poverty and maltreatment alter the brain in ways that create more disadvantage. If we know that poverty and maltreatment lead to disruptions in brain development that beget even greater economic disadvantage, then we must address maltreatment through economic policy. The good news is that children's brains are remarkably plastic and responsive to intervention in a variety of settings.

Sample Tweets

  • Disrupt #childmaltreatment, support #EITC @dorisdukefellows
  • givepovertytheboot @dorisdukefellows
  • Stand with families, demand better economic policies @dorisdukefellows


i U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth, and Families, Children's Bureau. Child Maltreatment 2014. 2016.

ii Wildeman, C., Emanueal, N., Leventhal, J.M., Putnam-Hornstein, E., Waldfogel, J. Lee, H. (2014). The prevalence of Confirmed Maltreatment Among US Children, 2004 to 2011. JAMA Pediatrics 168(8): 706-713.

iii Drake, B., & Jonson-Reid, M. (2014). Poverty and child maltreatment. In Handbook of child maltreatment (pp. 131-148). Springer Netherlands.

iv Millet, L., Lanier, P., & Drake, B. (2011). Are economic trends associated with child maltreatment? Preliminary results from the recent recession using state level data. Children and Youth Services Review, 33(7), 1280-1287.

v Eckenrode, J., Smith, E.G., McCarthy, M.E., & Dineen, M. (2014). Income inequality and child maltreatment in the United States. Pediatrics, 133(3), 454-461.

vi Drake, B., & Pandey, S. (1996). Understanding the relationship between neighborhood poverty and specific types of child maltreatment. Child Abuse & Neglect, 20(11), 1003-1018.

vii Bakst, D., & Tyrrell, P. (2017). Big Government Policies that Hurt the Poor and How to Address Them. Poverty and Ineqaulity. The Heritage Foundation. April 5, 2017. Retrieved on 1/11/2017 from

viii Hair, N.L., Hanson, J.L., Wolfe, B.L, & Pollak, S.D. (2015). Association of Child Poverty, Brain Development, and Academic Achievement. JAMA Pediatrics, 169(9), 822.

ix McLaughlin, K.A., Peverill, M., Gold, A.L., Alves, S., & Sheridan, M.A. (2015). Child Maltreatment and Neural Systems Underlying Emotion Regulation. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 54(9), 753-762.