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Jessica Pac on the Effects of Child Poverty Reductions on Child Protective Services Involvement

  • Jessica Pac
  • January 08 2024
  • PC136-2024

Jessica Pac
Jessica Pac

Child Protective Services (CPS) involvement is common, especially for children experiencing poverty, or who are Black or Native American. About a third of children are subject to a CPS investigation before their 18th birthday, but research shows reducing child poverty could help change this. In this episode, Dr. Jessica Pac discusses the recent paper she co-authored titled, “The Effects of Child Poverty Reductions on Child Protective Services Involvement.”

Jessica Pac is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Professor Pac’s research broadly harnesses applied econometric and data science methods to provide novel insight on mandatory reporting behaviors and the effects of antipoverty and work-family policy supports on maternal employment, safety and health, and infant and child safety and health.

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Taylor [00:00:06] Hello, and thanks for joining us for the Poverty Research and Policy podcast from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I’m Nateya Taylor. For this episode, we are going to be talking with Dr. Jessica Pac about the paper she co-authored titled “The Effects of Child Poverty Reductions on Child Protective Services Involvement.” Jessica Pac is an assistant professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Jessica’s research broadly harnesses applied econometric and data science methods to provide novel insight on mandatory reporting behaviors and the effects of anti-poverty and work family policy supports on maternal employment, safety and health, and infant and child safety and health. Jessica, thanks for joining us today.

Pac [00:00:55] Thanks for having me.

Taylor [00:00:57] The first thing I want to ask you, what is Child Protective Services involvement and how common is it in the United States?

Pac [00:01:05] Child Protective Services is basically a term that’s used to describe the agency, either county or state agency, whose goal is to protect children from harm, specifically regarding child abuse and neglect and involvement in the Child Protective Services can look a number of different ways, so it can mean that a family is reported to Child Protective Services by a mandated or non mandated reporter out of concern for the child’s safety or well-being, but other ways that children and their families can become involved with CPS include having the investigation by Child Protective Services, where the agency does an investigation to see if the child is indeed at risk of harm, or, in some cases, very few cases, the child can be removed from the home and placed into foster care or some other form of out-of-home care. Around one third of kids are subject to a CPS investigation before their 18th birthday. However, this rate is about double for kids who are Black relative to kids who are white. There are racial disparities in the rate of involvement with Child Protective Services.

Taylor [00:02:18] And how are income and CPS involvement related?

Pac [00:02:24] There’s a large literature that shows that poverty is the most consistent predictor of becoming involved with Child Protective Services. However, only recently has the literature shown that this relationship is likely causal in nature. What that means is that if families were to receive an extra $1,000 in income, that it would mechanically reduce their risk of becoming involved with Child Protective Services. However, this doesn’t mean that poor families routinely or disproportionately engage in maltreated behavior, or that they have substandard parenting relative to wealthier families. What it does mean is that some forms of material hardship, food insecurity, housing insecurity are constituted as forms of child abuse and neglect, depending on which state children live in. So material hardship obviously, is a broad term. Poverty is a very broad term. But if that material hardship takes the form of housing instability and say, for example, a child lives in a state where being homeless is considered a form of neglect, then that family is more likely to be reported to Child Protective Services if they’re experiencing homelessness. But neglect includes a range of other, um, omissions, if you will. So, for example, neglect is also used to describe the absence of a serve and in return relationship between an infant or a child and their parent, where basically there’s no communication or very little communication that children need in order to thrive behaviorally. Neglect also includes things like a lack of supervision. So, for example, if a child and a family live in an apartment complex where the locks are broken and the child wanders outside of the home, even if it was the fault of the landlord or someone else to fix the locks or keep the locks in good repair, a parent could be found guilty of neglect. If the child were to wander outside of the home and be harmed as a result of that. So neglect encompasses a wide range of, um, mostly omissions of behavior. But then there’s other forms of maltreatment as well that are highly correlated with impoverishment and poverty and are highly correlated with adverse outcomes as well as Child Protective Services involvement.

Taylor [00:04:46] Earlier, you mentioned how common Child Protective Services involvement is and the disproportionality with race. Can you go more in depth about the racial demographics of those who have encounters with CPS, and how does income impact these demographics?

Pac [00:05:04] Mhm. So Black and Native American children face a much higher risk of being subject to Child Protective Services investigations and of being removed. There’s very little research that’s able to establish whether or not this relationship is causal in nature or there’s no research, I should say, in part because we know that that systemic racism leads to differences between and across families that might lead to higher rates of CPS involvement. So there is some evidence, however, that shows that Black children are twice as likely to be removed from their home than white children, and that this estimate is likely less biased. However, there’s no evidence that I’m aware of that is able to establish the cause of racial disproportionality in CPS investigations. Research suggests that there’s two different hypotheses as to why this could be the case. The risk hypothesis suggests that minoritized families are more likely to be subject to surveillance by mandated and non mandated reporters, and, due to higher rates of poverty, might be more likely to engage in substandard parenting. But then there’s also the bias hypothesis that basically says that because of higher rates of poverty, Black or Native American children are more likely to be reported to Child protective Services, but that there are no differences in parenting behaviors. And most researchers think that it’s probably some combination of both of these. That there’s not only systemic racism that leads to higher rates of reporting, but also that minoritized families have less access to the types of resources that would protect the child and family from becoming involved with Child Protective Services.

Taylor [00:06:51] Because CPS involvement is linked to poverty, there’s an assumption that parents experiencing poverty, neglect or maltreat their children, which is not true. Can you talk about some of the misconceptions about parenting while experiencing poverty?

Pac [00:07:08] Yeah. So one of the concerns is that states have the autonomy to decide what constitutes substandard parenting or what constitutes neglect and abuse and other forms of maltreatment. And when these policies are designed such that poor families are more likely to be reported to CPS than to receive the resources that they need in order to address those disparities, then there’s a natural relationship, a natural correlation between poverty and becoming involved with CPS. Part of the problem as well, and several other studies have shown that um, availability of jobs pay just macroeconomic well-being, the economy, that all of these things are related to child protective services and government. One study even found that gasoline prices was related to Child Protective Services involvement. So what this means is that whether families are more likely to be reported due to reasons of poverty or just more likely to be surveilled. Either way, this is a strong indication that if a family’s reported that there could be some need that’s not being addressed. So this is why a lot of researchers are thinking about how the safety net can be better leveraged to prevent that encounter from happening in the first place. However, as I said earlier, not all families who are poor are also families who maltreated their children. And because of these differences in surveillance and differences in access to resources and jobs and so on, it’s it’s not clear what the cause of this disparity is, but it certainly isn’t a rule that poor families are more or more likely to treat their children. They’re just more likely to become involved with child protective services.

Taylor [00:08:57] In the paper, you all discuss some of the proposed policies to reduce child poverty. Can you talk about some of those policies that you all analyzed?

Pac [00:09:08] So the National Academy of Sciences in 2019 developed a report called A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty. And in this report, the authors developed a set of four packages of policies. And these packages of policies were designed to reduce child poverty by up to 50%. The packages and policies included some new policies like a child allowance policy or they expanded existing policies. So in our paper, we simulated the effects of three of four of those policy packages. So the first one that we simulated included an expansion to the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is a work conditioned tax credit that supports working families, especially those with children, and provides them with an additional refundable amount when they file their taxes each year. And the amount of the tax refund increases with work hours up to a certain point. And this expansion would basically provide an additional tax refund to families upon filing. There were other expansions in this package, including expanding some form of the child and dependent care tax credit. Um, some packages included an increase to the minimum wage, expanding a housing voucher program, expanding SNAP benefits. Like I said, the introduction of a child allowance, which in this case is basically, um, through the child tax credit. Increasing the amount of money that families would receive due to the child tax credit, which is similar to what happened in 2021, or a child child allowance in general, which is basically just money that families receive for each child in the family that they can use to spend on anything that would be helpful. And then there was also one of the packages included a child support assurance policy and an elimination of the 1996 immigration eligibility restrictions. So across these three packages, they aimed to reduce child poverty from 35% up to just over 50%. 52% reduction in child poverty.

Taylor [00:11:19] And you all used a microsimulation to predict how three of the four proposed National Academy of Sciences policy packages, if enacted, would affect CPS investigations. Can you explain what a microsimulation is?

Pac [00:11:36] Yeah. So so what we did is we took a sample of families and children from a survey, a national, nationally representative survey called the Current Population Survey. And this sample, um, when used properly, is representative of all the families in the United States. And it captures information on income and earnings and also unearned income, such as public assistance. And based on the composition and the size of the family that we designated as the the resource sharing unit under the Supplemental Poverty Measure. Um, we were able to see if this policy were implemented, how would income change for this particular family. So under package three, would this family receive more income or less income? And how much more income would they receive then after simulating the effects of each of these policies. We look to previous literature to figure out how much income would be needed in order to reduce the risk of CPS involvement. And we found three papers that provided us pretty good estimates for each dollar spent or freed each additional dollar and income. How much would the risk of Child Protective Services involvement be reduced? And so then, based on that amount of income that we assigned or simulated for each family and child, we had a subsequent reduction in Child Protective Services involvement. The difficulty is the data that we used. You can’t observe children and their families and their income and the child’s CPS involvement directly. So we had to estimate the risk that that child would become involved with Child Protective Services based on administrative records of CPS involvement. For the children who are just like this child living in this county, who were this race ethnicity and this age, for example.

Taylor [00:13:34] After conducting the microsimulation. What were the results?

Pac [00:13:39] Well, our first results were that we were able to simulate and replicate the estimates from the National Academy of Sciences simulations. So under package two, which is the first package that we simulated, we estimated that around 4 million children would be moved out of poverty under package three. We estimated that around 5 million children would be moved out of poverty and under package for around 5.5 million children would be moved out of poverty. And by our estimates, we estimated that across these three packages of policies that the rate of investigations would be reduced by 11 to about 20% annually. However, we found that there were much larger effects among minoritized children. So, for example, among Black children, we estimated that CPS investigations would be reduced by around 19 to almost 30%. And for Hispanic children, we estimated, uh, CPS involvement would be reduced by from 13 to 24%. And both of these are relative to white children, for whom we estimated a reduction of around 8 to 13%. So taking these results and drawing them out, um, to the racial disproportionality framework that I talked about earlier, what this means is that racial disproportionality in many, if not all, states would be close to eliminated if these packages of policies were to be implemented, especially the more generous packages of policies. Um, but what it also shows is that the safety net and these, these public assistance programs can be leveraged to reduce the risk of not only substandard parenting, but also becoming involved in Child Protective Services in the first place. So this provides important implications for the child welfare system in the future, but also to some of the effects of expanding safety net programs that that policymakers might not anticipate or plan on when thinking about whether or not an expansion is merited.

Taylor [00:15:46] Since your results show that enacting these policies would decrease child poverty and CPS involvement. What is the likelihood that these policies will be enacted?

Pac [00:15:58] Well. Our team was very excited to see in 2021 that the American Rescue Plan Act, um, passed by Biden led to the introduction of an expanded child tax credit, which was very similar to the child allowance program that we simulated in this paper. So I think if you would have asked us before 2021, we would have said the odds are not, uh, as good as they are if you ask us now. That said, many states, um, have either passed their own version of the expanded child tax credit, or this type of legislation is on the ballot and is being considered. The reason being that enables families, as I mentioned earlier, to use the money in whatever way that the family needs that would benefit the children and the families. So this could mean that it supports childcare, which would allow families to work, which then, of course benefits the family in many ways, especially when supervisory neglect is a concern. Um, but it could also mean that it can be used to purchase things such as diapers that are not currently covered under any safety net program. So I think depending on which state a person lives in, some some states are more generous. Their existing safety net is more generous than others. But, um, I think given the evidence, not just from this paper, but from a large literature base, that there’s positive effects, direct and indirect effects of expanding safety net programs, especially those that are, um, responsive to people’s needs and those that support things like working and child care and child safety, that those can benefit children, especially when focused on early childhood, when the expenses are very high and when children are especially vulnerable to things like injury, and when they also really need that, um, healthy attachment with their caregivers.

Taylor [00:17:56] What further research, policy or practices could help support lowering childhood poverty and CPS involvement?

Pac [00:18:07] That’s a good question. Um, there is so much great work happening right now and in so many different fields. It’s very much an interdisciplinary topic, and I think what people are thinking about is how can we, eh, leverage existing policies to make them work optimally for children and families? But some people are also thinking about, well, maybe we should rethink how we think of policy and whether we think, for example, that Child Protective Services is the optimal intervention for for children and for families. So I think on one hand, there is a need for more research to think, uh, more solution based, for example, thinking about not only ways to expand and leverage current safety net programs, but to make sure that whatever is being done to adjust those safety net programs can keep up with inflation, for example, and can respond to different changing needs with respect to the economy and the different changing needs that families may have. And then there’s also some work that’s being done to think about what should constitute child abuse, neglect, and in what ways should those definitions be reflected in state statutes? That’s obviously tangential to some degree, but it also does matter when the definition varies dramatically across states, which in some cases it does. Um, and thinking about, well, we have to have, uh, a target. And right now it’s kind of a moving target, but it would be better if we had a, uh, a less biased or if you will, like a ground truth measure of child well-being, because then that way we can better evaluate across states whether policies are as effective as we think they are or, or as we think that they could be.

Taylor [00:19:52] Jessica, thanks for joining us today and providing your insight on how to reduce child poverty and Child Protective Services involvement. Uh, I appreciate you for sitting down and talking with me today.

Pac [00:20:05] It’s my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me. And on behalf of myself and all of my collaborators, thank you so much for highlighting our research.

Taylor [00:20:14] Thanks so much to Dr. Jessica Pac, who is an assistant professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She joined us to discuss the recent paper she coauthored titled “The Effects of Child Poverty Reductions and Child Protective Services Involvement.” You can find a link to the paper in the show notes for this episode. The production of this podcast was supported in part by funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. But its contents don’t necessarily represent the opinions or policies of that office or any other agency of the federal government or the Institute for Research on Poverty. Music for the episode is by 808xri. Thanks for listening.


Child Development & Well-Being, Child Maltreatment & Child Welfare System, Child Poverty, Children, Economic Support, Family & Partnering, Financial Security, Inequality & Mobility, Parenting, Racial/Ethnic Inequality


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