Can You Tell the Difference Between Child Neglect and Poverty?

Updated: Nov 7

Imagine your elementary-school-age daughter's best friend Destiny comes over after school one afternoon. You try to call her mom Tina, but her phone has been disconnected. Destiny says that happens sometimes but her mom agreed to meet at your house if you can’t get ahold of her. You know that Tina is a single mom working in fast food and sometimes can’t get off to pick up Destiny. Destiny’s clothes are out of date, but clean, she regularly attends school where she eats breakfast and lunch and she tells you that her mom always finds something for her eat in the evening. Would you be concerned about Tina? Would you report Tina to Child Protective Services for neglect? What if you found out that Destiny and Tina are living in a car?


Neglect is defined as the failure of a parent/caregiver to provide basic necessities to one’s children—these include educational opportunities, food, and adequate shelters (Gosselin, 2019). However, as Dickerson, Quas, and Lavoie (2020) discuss in “Do Laypersons Conflate Poverty and Neglect?” this definition could be troublesome to families who endure poverty and do not provide these necessities, not because they chose to, but rather because their economic status does not allow them to. Child Protective Services often has to deal with reports of neglect that actually turn out to be poverty rather than actual neglect. These mistaken reports can bring about unnecessary problems for families already so disadvantaged. Therefore, Dickerson and colleagues (2020) were interested in what factors lead to misreports of child neglect, including the socioeconomic status and education of the reporter.


Dickerson and colleagues (2020) conducted two experiments where they had participants read vignettes (like the one at the beginning of this post) about a mother’s care of her daughter. Participants then decided whether the mother’s behavior met the standard of neglect and indicate whether they would have report it to Child Protective Services. Participants often made errors in identifying and labeling neglect – they frequently mistook poverty for neglect.


These findings are concerning because it shows us that the average person could misidentify and potentially overreport child neglect, especially in cases where the family in question is living in poverty. This phenomenon can cause many problems for already disadvantaged families – over reporting could lead to intervention that is not necessary, disruption in the family, and potentially overworking the services and obstructing them from protecting children who are in actual danger.


One potential solution to this problem is updating education on this subject. In 2018, 17% of children in America were living at or below the poverty line, and that percentage increases significantly for Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous children. If we can learn how to differentiate neglect from poverty, we can instead shift our focus to offering help to families currently living in poverty. It is essential to highlight the importance of knowing and fully understanding neglect versus poverty to avoid families being separated due to overreporting of children being “neglected” based on their economic status. This way, services could offer their full attention to children who are in real danger.


Hence, it is essential to increase resources for low-income families to avoid overreporting of child neglect. For more information about family support services please visit https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/supporting/support-services/. This website offers resources and services that support parents in their role as caregivers to help them resolve problems to offer the necessary means for children's development.

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