Does the Safety Net Help Prevent Family and Youth Violence?

By , , , and ·March 1, 2022
Emory University

The Issue:

In the United States, approximately 1 in 4 women experience intimate partner violence during their lifetime, while about 1 in 7 children experienced child abuse and neglect in 2020. Families experiencing poverty and economic pressure have increased risk for child maltreatment, intimate partner violence, and acts of violence by youth often due to stresses related to poverty, including family instability, substance abuse, and mental health problems. Since poverty is associated with increased risk of family and youth violence, do anti-poverty programs have the potential to mitigate these types of violence?

Poverty is associated with increased risk of family and youth violence. Do anti-poverty programs have the potential to mitigate these types of violence?

The Facts:

  • Poverty and economic pressure contribute to multiple forms of violence. Economic pressure on families living in poverty affects parenting stress, parental investments of time and money, and family routines. Children raised in environments without essential economic resources due to poverty are more likely to experience child maltreatment. Women experiencing poverty are at the greatest risk for intimate partner violence, or physical, sexual, psychological, or economic abuse by an intimate partner. Further, the longer a family experiences financial insecurity, the greater the risk of engagement in youth violence. 
  • There are several programs that aim to improve economic security and encourage employment. Such policies have been highlighted as evidence-based interventions to reduce rates of family and child poverty. For instance, the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is available to low- to moderate-income workers, lifted approximately 5.8 million people, including 3 million children, out of poverty in 2016.  The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a multidimensional, state-run policy that provides cash and other assistance to individuals with very low incomes, served approximately 1.8 million in June 2021. The federal minimum wage establishes a wage floor per hour, which, since 2009, has held at $7.25 translating to a household income below the federal poverty level for a family of two. Raising it has the potential to lift tens of millions of Americans out of poverty, although the effect of establishing a higher wage-floor on employment remains debated
  • The availability and generosity of these programs varies by state. While the federal minimum wage has remained at $7.25/hour for more than a decade, 30 states and the District of Columbia as well as some cities have enacted policies to increase state and local minimum wages. In 2022, the state-level minimum wage ranged from $7.25 per hour in 15 states to $15.20 per hour in Washington, DC. Tax credits based on income also vary geographically as many states have instituted their own versions of a state earned income tax credit, augmenting the federal program. Currently 28 states and the District of Columbia have adopted a state-level version of the EITC which ranged from 3% (in Montana) to 45% (California) of the federal EITC. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) policies have the greatest discrepancies across states. Some states have restricted access to TANF for families by setting more stringent conditions for receiving benefits. As a result, the ratio of families receiving TANF to the number of families with children in poverty ranges from a high of 70 in California to a low of 4 in Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana. This means that in Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana, for every 100 families living in poverty, only 4 are receiving TANF.
  • Research suggests that family economic security policies that increase access to money protect against family and youth violence. Taking advantage of policy changes and differences in policies across states, researchers have generally found that changes to family economic security policies that increase monetary benefits reduce official reports of child maltreatment, intimate partner violence and violent behaviors among youth. These policies have also been credited with decreasing risk factors for violence by reducing stress associated with economic instability and improving mental health and relationships among family members. For example, access to the EITC is associated with lower rates of intimate partner violence against women. In our recent study, we find that state-level refundable EITCs are protective against both isolation coercion (tries to keep you from seeing or talking with your friends or family) and economic coercion (withholds money, makes you ask for money, or takes your money) against women. Compared to states with no EITC, state-level refundable EITCs significantly reduced the odds of isolation victimization by 45% and the odds of economic coercion by 53% for the intervention group compared to the comparison group. The study used family data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS) and follows a cohort of 4,898 children born between 1998 and 2000. Using the FFCWS data, our study did not find that increases in minimum wage were associated with mothers’ self-reports of child maltreatment behaviors; however, another study conducted by our team demonstrated that increases in the minimum wage were associated with reductions in the most severe and costly externalizing behaviors among children.  Finally, using data from 2001 to 2010, we found that increasing TANF cash benefits reduced the likelihood that mothers would engage in acts of physical violence toward their children. 
  • The EITC, minimum wage, and TANF programs require employment as a condition of access to benefits, however, and the conditionality of working may lead to other problems that actually increase the risk of violence for women and children. While employment has been shown to protect against violence by increasing individual and family resources, buffering against economic instability, and promoting mental health for some, the employment process may increase family and youth violence for others. An increase in employment hours has been found to contribute to substandard parenting and neglect in single-mother households. So while employment gives single mothers an income, it often means they have less time for childcare. Having a TANF case closed due to lack of compliance with work requirements may lead to employment for some, but more often has been associated with increased risk of unemployment and under-employment and child maltreatment. Employment or conditions associated with cash transfers may increase intimate partner violence victimization for some women, especially in contexts where women do not usually work or the male partner is unemployed or holds traditional gender norms. In our recent study interviewing women who have recent TANF experience in Kansas, New York, and Missouri, we find that TANF conditionality such as child support requirements, time limits, and sanctions associated with work requirements created economic hardship for women, increased women’s dependence upon others for money and childcare, and increased conflict and sometimes the risk of violent events with their intimate partners. Thus, while most of the evidence points to family economic policies mitigating against violence, the employment requirements can have unexpected effects.

What this Means:

There are multiple benefits to economic security policies. An underappreciated one is that, along with alleviating poverty, they also have the potential to reduce family and youth violence. Thus, the value of these programs should be considered even greater than previously thought. However, more recent research has shown that the effects on violence of family economic security policies that have work requirements are not unambiguously good. Thus, not only the magnitude but also the design of these policies, including the conditions they impose, should be considered. Beyond the human costs of violence, there are economic costs as well. Child maltreatment prevention that intervenes on social determinants such as poverty may produce significant population-level effects and provide substantial cost-savings to the health care system. Violence can result in long-term psychological and physical harm, leading to a reduction in future earnings and productivity. In fact, the economic costs of interpersonal violence have been estimated to cost the United States the equivalent of 3.3% of GDP. Family economic security policies may be one avenue to prevent these human and economic costs of violence.


Crime / Poverty / Social Safety Net
Written by The EconoFact Network. To contact with any questions or comments, please email [email protected].
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