October 26, 2009

Childhood Maltreatment Linked to Adulthood Economic Problems

a photo of a young boy, looking down, seated on some stairs

Childhood maltreatment is known to affect both physical and mental health in adulthood. According to a new study, the long-term impacts of child maltreatment also include higher rates of unemployment, poverty and use of social services.

Previous research has found that parents who were maltreated as children are more likely to abuse and neglect their own children, forming an intergenerational cycle of violence. Other studies have found low socioeconomic status to be a risk factor for the perpetration of child abuse and neglect. Dr. David Zielinski of NIH's National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) suspected that, if childhood maltreatment affected socioeconomic well-being later in life, it might help explain this cycle.

To explore the link, Zielinski evaluated data on childhood maltreatment and adult socioeconomic well-being from the NIMH-funded National Comorbidity Survey. The survey estimated the prevalence of mental disorders using modern psychiatric standards in a representative sample of the general U.S. population. Zielinski examined data from over 5,000 participants. The results were published in the October 2009 issue of the journal Child Abuse and Neglect.

Zielinski found that adults who had been physically abused, sexually abused, or severely neglected as children were significantly more likely to be unemployed, living below the poverty line and using social services than people without a history of child maltreatment. The risks rose further in those who had experienced more than one type of maltreatment.

Adults who had been physically abused as children were 60% more likely than non-victims to be living in poverty. Those who had experienced 2 or more types of childhood maltreatment were 180% more likely to be living below the poverty line.

Childhood physical abuse increased the risk of unemployment by 140%. A history of multiple types of maltreatment increased the risk by 190%. In contrast, survivors of sexual abuse or severe neglect didn't have greater unemployment rates than non-victims.

Maltreatment was also linked to lower rates of health care coverage and greater use of social services such as Medicaid, especially among adults who had experienced childhood sexual abuse.

These results imply that child maltreatment carries significant costs not only to the individual but also to society. The public shares the burden in supporting social services related to child maltreatment (such as child welfare services). In the long term, it also pays for increased unemployment insurance, poverty-based public assistance and publicly funded health insurance, such as Medicaid. Other societal impacts include losses in employment productivity and tax revenues.

"What we've been learning is that traumatic childhood experiences have a profound impact that's measureable well into adulthood," Zielinski says. "Approximately 1 million children are officially identified as maltreatment victims each year and we're only beginning to understand the long-term burden this places on society."

Studies that follow maltreated children over time will be needed to confirm these findings. Future research may also help scientists better understand how childhood maltreatment affects socioeconomic hardships and suggest strategies to target those mechanisms. If child abuse and neglect contribute to low socioeconomic status in adulthood, targeted assistance for victims, such as access to job training and job counseling programs, may help break the cycle of violence.

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