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Child abuse higher in areas of extreme income inequality



A toddler runs into the yard of her family's trailer home in Pomona. Many families in Pomona can’t afford preschool – about 20 percent live in poverty.
A toddler runs into the yard of her family's trailer home in Pomona. Many families in Pomona can’t afford preschool – about 20 percent live in poverty.
Grant Slater/KPCC


Children who live in areas of extreme income inequality may be at higher risk for maltreatment, according to a new study from Cornell University. Based on five years of data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, researchers found children living U.S. counties where income inequality was more extreme suffered greater levels of abuse or neglect.

To be published in the March edition of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, this study charts new territory for child abuse and neglect. Previous research has examined the connections between income inequality and health and well-being, but this is the first study of how the rich-poor gap might increase child maltreatment. 

The researchers said they can't say income inequality leads to abuse, rather that the two factors are related somehow. They controlled for factors such as extreme poverty, race, education levels and public assistance levels and found that as income inequality rose, so did the rate of child abuse or neglect.

“Our study extends the list of unfavorable child outcomes associated with income inequality to include child abuse and neglect,” the study’s authors said in the Pediatrics article.

The study examined data from 3,142 counties. Rates of abuse or neglect ranged from 0.2 percent of children at the low end to 3.1 percent at the high end.

To reduce child abuse and neglect, lead author John Eckenrode wrote, requires “advocacy and action at the societal level aimed at reducing income inequality.”