By Jennifer Fernandez
States that expanded access to federal food benefits saw decreases in the rates of cases investigated by child protective services, a new study by researchers from UNC Chapel Hill shows.
“It was affirming to see it aligning with mounting evidence,” said Anna Austin, an assistant professor at the Gillings School of Global Public Health and principal investigator on the study.
Austin said growing evidence shows that programs and policies such as increasing minimum wage and expanding food benefits eligibility provide “critical support to parents” that helps them create a safe environment for their children.
The results are similar to what Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina found when it reviewed a compilation of studies that looked at the impact that economic supports have on child abuse and neglect.
“When families are not overloaded by economic stress, they’re less likely to be known to the child welfare system,” said Sharon Hirsch, president and CEO of the Morrisville-based nonprofit.
Just having the information from this study, Austin said, will help program advocates when they talk with policymakers.
The study, published in January on the JAMA Pediatrics website, looked at the effect on rates of child protective services cases when states dropped the asset test (where countable assets cannot exceed a certain amount), increased the income limit to qualify for benefits, or both.
Researchers examined data from 2006 to 2019 pulled from a policy database maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System Child Files. They studied the data from March to September last year before writing their report, which Austin said was peer-reviewed before being published.
The study used investigated reports by child protective services for suspected child abuse and neglect from 37 states to look at elimination of the asset test, from 36 states to examine increases in the income limit, and from 26 states to examine when both policies were adopted.
North Carolina eliminated the asset test and increased income eligibility limits in 2011.
It took two years or more for child protective services cases to drop after policy adoption, according to Austin’s study. However, the magnitude of the decreases increased with time, “indicating both sustained and accumulating benefits over time,” the authors wrote.
All seven people who worked on the study are connected to UNC’s Gillings School or the School of Medicine. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided funding for the research.
Nutrition and neglect
The report comes as North Carolina prepares to end the extra monthly food benefits distributed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
North Carolina’s “emergency allotments,” an extra at least $95 per household, will go out for the last time in February because federal emergency allotments for all states end as of March, the state Department of Health and Human Services said.
North Carolina distributed federal food benefits to 1,680,600 people in October 2021. That dropped to 1,574,428 in October 2022, according to preliminary USDA data as of January.
Children involved with child protective services and exposed to early experiences of abuse and neglect have a greater chance of suffering poor health and poor development throughout their lives, according to a 2012 study published in the Public Library of Science’s peer-reviewed open access scientific journal.
Those issues of food access and child neglect and abuse led the team of researchers from UNC Chapel Hill to wonder if broader access to federal food benefits might affect rates of child protective services cases involving suspected child abuse or neglect.
The group delved into data from 2006 to 2019 and found about 29.2 million child protective services investigative reports across all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Their study found:
- States that eliminated the asset test saw an average of 8.2 fewer CPS-investigated reports per 1,000 child population per year than if the states had not eliminated the test.
- States that increased the eligibility income limit saw an average of 5 fewer CPS-investigated reports per 1,000 child population per year than if they had not increased the income limit.
- States that both dropped the asset test and increased the income limit saw an average of 9.3 fewer CPS-investigated reports per 1,000 child population per year than if they had not adopted both policies.
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The study showed a smaller decrease in cases of physical abuse than in neglect.
“It’s harder to move the needle on that because it requires changing caregiver behavior,” Austin said.
Neglect is a very broad category and often relates to families lacking basic resources, such as food, Austin said.
Future food insecurity
USDA establishes the food benefits amount and eligibility criteria; however, Congress controls aspects of USDA programs, including the food benefits, through authorization of what is commonly called the “farm bill.”
And, as Austin’s study notes, Congress plans to tackle updating the farm bill this year. A policy addressing “broad-based categorical eligibility” as a state option is likely to be debated again.
That policy makes many households eligible for federal food benefits because they already qualify for certain other benefits, such as welfare. It’s a way to increase the income limit, asset test, or both — allowing more low-income families to qualify for food aid.
A provision that was struck from the final 2018 farm bill would have required all states to limit eligibility to 135 percent of the federal poverty level (about $33,560 for a family of three), instead of allowing for a higher limit of 200 percent of the federal poverty level ($49,720 for the same family of three) as some states do now. The 2018 provision also would have basically eliminated broad-based categorical eligibility except for some households under very narrow conditions.
In general, North Carolina families earning up to twice the federal poverty level are eligible for food benefits. They can earn a little more if one of their household members has a disability or is a low-income senior.
The categorical eligibility policy allows states to bump up a family’s income limit so that they don’t hit a “benefits cliff” of losing their benefits if their earnings rise only slightly.
States that also allow low-income families to maintain modest assets while getting food benefits enable those families “to avoid debt, weather unexpected financial disruptions, and better prepare to support themselves in retirement,” researcher Dottie Rosenbaum from the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities wrote in 2019.
That success affects the broader community, Prevent Child Abuse’s Hirsch said.
“Anytime we can make it easier for families to make ends meet, reduce the stress that families face, particularly young families with new children, to have access to the resources and supports that they need so that their kids can thrive, we’re all going to be better off,” she said. “But that isn’t always the way that the policy is looked at at the federal level.”
Hirsch said lawmakers need to understand how interconnected the policies are. The farm bill tackles issues around food, but studies have shown that access to food affects rates of child abuse and neglect, she said.
Even so, broad-based categorical eligibility, which expands that access to food benefits, is “regularly on the chopping block,” Austin said.
She hopes the UNC study gets into “the hands of policymakers who are making decisions about a variety of policies that can help.”
“Hopefully,” she said, “the research can improve outcomes for real children and their families.”