A nationwide, county-by-county study shows that the rate of child maltreatment — from sexual, physical and emotional abuse to traumatic brain injuries and death – worsened as the Great Depression deepened and the gap between rich and poor became more pronounced, according to a study by Cornell University.
The Income Inequality and Child Maltreatment in the United States study will be published in the March 2014 edition of the peer-review journal Pediatrics. The study is one of the most comprehensive of its kind, according to a university press release.
It is one of the first studies to target child abuse based on wide income disparities in a region. Researchers examined data from 2005-2009 in all 3,142 American counties.
“Our study is the first to demonstrate that increases in income inequality are associated with increases in child maltreatment,” said John J. Eckenrode, professor of human development and director of the Family Life Development Center in the College of Human Ecology. “More equal societies, states and communities have fewer health and social problems than less equal ones – that much was known. Our study extends the list of unfavorable child outcomes associated with income inequality to include child abuse and neglect.”
Cornell researchers noted that nearly 3 million children younger than 18 are physically abused, sexually abused, physically neglected or emotionally abused each year in the United States. That is about 4 percent of the youth population – and those are just the officially documented cases.
“Certainly, poor counties with general, overall poverty have significant problems with child abuse,” Eckenrode said. “We were more interested in geographic areas with wide variations in income – think of counties encompassing affluent suburbs and impoverished inner cities, or think of rich/poor Brooklyn, New York – that’s where income inequalities are most pronounced. That’s where the kids are really hurting.”
The impact of the abuse is long lasting, according to researchers.
“Child maltreatment is a toxic stressor in the lives of children that may result in childhood mortality and morbidities and have lifelong effects on leading causes of death in adults,” they wrote.
“This is in addition to long-term effects on mental health, substance use, risky sexual behavior and criminal behavior … increased rates of unemployment, poverty and Medicaid use in adulthood.”