The Great Recession Raises Risk for Child Maltreatment, Columbia Researchers Find

children crying

The Great Recession, and worsening economic conditions, leads mothers to engage in increased high frequency spanking of their children, according to a new study by a team of Columbia University researchers. Dr. Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor at Teacher’s College, and Dr. Jane Waldfogel, Compton Foundation Centennial Professor at the Columbia School of Social Work, and William Schneider, a doctoral student in the School of Social Work, co-authored the study, the findings of which appear in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect (go to journal article).

The researchers found that as consumer confidence fell during the Great Recession, the likelihood of high frequency maternal spanking increased nearly six-fold (from approximately 2 to 8 percent). These findings are particularly striking given that the study focused on mothers with children who were approximately nine years old at the time of the study, an age at which researchers expect spanking and corporal punishment to be decreasing.

Additionally, the study found that high frequency maternal spanking was significantly associated with Child Protective Services involvement, indicating that high frequency spanking may be a risk factor for child maltreatment.

The findings were based on data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFS), a population-based, birth cohort study conducted by researchers at Princeton and Columbia of nearly 5,000 children born in 20 large American cities between 1998 and 2000. Mothers were interviewed shortly after giving birth and when the children were approximately 1, 3, 5 and 9 years old. The researchers supplemented these data with measurements of economic conditions in each of the 20 cities where the FFS mothers lived. Specifically, they examined unemployment rates, foreclosure rates, and consumer confidence as measured by the Consumer Sentiment Index, obtained from the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers. In their analysis, they controlled for an extensive set of factors that might also influence spanking, including:

  • maternal age, race/ethnicity, immigration status, educational attainment, and history of depression;
  • family structure and poverty status; and
  • child low birth weight, gender, and age (in months) at the time of interview.

The results showed that the reach of events like the Great Recession may go beyond traditional measures of economic uncertainty, like unemployment or home foreclosure rates—influencing parents and children not only through job loss and housing disruption but also through changes in their perception of the economy.

The Fragile Families Study is funded through grants from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), and a consortium of private foundations and other government agencies. The Russell Sage Foundation provided additional funding for research on the Great Recession.

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