Evaluating the Impact of Minimum Wage Increases on Child Neglect

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During the most recent presidential election, the issue of raising the federal minimum wage was intensely debated. Political debates about the federal minimum wage often center on the effects of a minimum wage increase on employers’ labor decisions, changes in prices of goods and services and poverty alleviation among workers. In a recent article, researchers Kerri Raissian and Lindsey Bullinger examine the relationship between minimum wage incomes and state-level child maltreatment rates. A critical finding of the study was that increases in minimum wage were associated with a significant decrease in reports of child neglect.

Raissan and Bullinger assert that this research is particularly salient because increases in minimum wage disproportionately benefit women, and the majority of caretakers in cases of child maltreatment are women. However, the authors emphasize that, even though it is true that low-income women have a higher than average tendency to neglect children in their care, the number of women who do so represent a small portion of all low-income women.

The authors used state-level counts of child maltreatment reports from 42 states over the period from 2004 to 2013 and considered the number of reports of neglect per state per quarter. They calculated maltreatment rates by type, such as abuse or neglect; overall substantiation rate, which is the rate of evidence beyond the report itself to confirm the mistreatment; and child removal rate. In order to isolate the effect of minimum wage increases, the authors utilized each state’s quarterly minimum wage rate, controlling for state and time trends, basic demographics, and child welfare policies.

Raissan and Bullinger found that a $1 increase in minimum wage was associated with a 9.6 percent decrease in reports of child neglect. This association was strongest for the youngest children — ages 5 and under — for whom the $1 increase corresponded to a 10.8 percent decrease in reports of neglect. This decrease in reports of neglect was also significant among children ages 6 to 12, but not among those ages 13 to 17. Other forms of child maltreatment, such as abuse, showed no statistically significant association with changes in the minimum wage. Additionally, there were no significant differences in these effects among different racial groups.

This research contributes to a growing body of literature that suggests a connection between poverty and child maltreatment. It is possible that this connection is indirect in the sense that a higher income could have an impact on family structures, conflict levels in the home, or the  psychological wellbeing of caregivers, all of which may affect rates of child maltreatment. However, because the authors only found a significant association between neglect and the minimum wage, without such an association for other forms of mistreatment, their report provides evidence that income may influence child neglect through a more direct mechanism. For example, higher income levels may enable caregivers to spend more money on necessities for children, thereby directly decreasing the probability of child neglect.

The researchers observed that the average minimum wage increase was only $0.70, the equivalent of a weekly income increase of $28, over the course of the study period. While this may appear to be a relatively small amount, they argue that “[f]or Americans with financial hardship […] an increase in the minimum wage may be the difference between providing more food on the table or keeping the lights on.” The results of this study suggest that even a small increase in income may allow caregivers to do much more in providing for their children. Critically, this may have the direct effect of preventing some cases of neglect, which by extension prevents both a variety of traumas to the affected children and significant costs to society.

This research highlights an indirect benefit of minimum wage rate increases — one that is typically absent from political arguments. The findings also illustrate the importance of considering the full range of impacts, beyond macroeconomic effects on labor supply, when evaluating minimum wage policies. The study bolsters conventional wisdom with respect to the ways in which child neglect can occur and the role that economic policies can play in prevention. While further research examining household-level effects would augment these findings, these conclusions alone suggest that there is a potential to ease political stalemates on the topic of minimum wage by framing the issue in terms of preventing child neglect, for which there is broad support.

Article source: Raissian, Kerri and Lindsey Rose Bullinger. “Money Matters: Does the Minimum Wage Affect Child Maltreatment Rates?” Children and Youth Services Review 72 (2017): 60-70.

Featured photo: cc/(pinarlauridsen, photo ID: 465496623, from iStock by Getty Images)

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Rachel Johnson

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