Post-Recession Blues

(Originally published September 2014)

Within a couple of years of the beginning of the Great Recession (2008-09), scholarly articles began to appear that found little or no effect on child maltreatment rates or entries into foster care. Somehow, a severe economic slump, which included a sudden increase in unemployment, did not seem to be having large scale effects on the nation’s child welfare systems. In fact, child maltreatment rates, as indicated by NCANDS statistics, and the number of children in foster care continued to decline in many states through 2011. However, groups of scholars who examined hospital admissions of children due to serious inflicted injuries found large increases in severe physical abuse (mostly of very young children) associated with increases in home foreclosure rates.

These seemingly conflicting research findings led to scholarly discussion of the reliability of NCANDS statistics influenced by varying legal definitions of child abuse and neglect, and by a steady increase in the number of states utilizing differential response (DR) systems which dispense with “findings” of abuse or neglect in the large percentage of cases assigned to an agency’s DR family assessment track. In addition, NCANDS lacks a severity measure of child safety, and so is not a sensitive indicator of an increase or decrease of serious inflicted injuries or unintended injuries resulting from parental negligence.

Child welfare scholars have been slow to consider the possibility that the effects of the Great Recession might be delayed even though there is an historical precedent: the aftermath of the severe recession (often referred to as the Reagan recession) of 1981-
82. Following this recession, foster care numbers exploded from 1986-1999, eventually leading to a doubling of the U.S. foster care population in 13 years. I am not aware of a single scholar or policymaker who has connected the huge increase in foster care that began in the late 1980s (and has shaped child welfare practice and policy to this day) to the draconian cuts in family support programs that occurred during and after the recession of the early 1980s. After all, the sudden and dramatic increase in foster care beginning in 1986 was initially associated with a crack cocaine epidemic and in subsequent years with widespread manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine in the Western United States. How might social policies that determined the level of state and federal support for low income families have led to a substance abuse epidemic?

The social theorist whose ideas provide some of the best insight into child welfare trends following deep recessions is the 19th and early 20th century sociologist, Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) whose analysis of European suicide rates continues to be theoretically important. Durkheim’s view was that the strengthening or weakening of collective bonds explained predictable patterns in suicide rates. Individuals didn’t kill themselves when environmental or social conditions were the most challenging, Durkheim believed, but when changes in societies disrupted cohesive social relationships. According to this view, emergencies (whether they be economic or environmental or due to social threats such as war) often bring out the best in individuals and communities. Governments usually mobilize resources and interventions, and may fund ongoing efforts to help threatened communities and groups, or adopt policies that create a sense of national purpose. The onset of a severe recession, like other national emergencies, may initially strengthen social bonds as families,  neighborhoods and communities pull together to cope with a widely perceived crisis.

Nevertheless, emergencies wane and, psychologically, ‘business as usual’ is gradually restored. ‘Business as usual’ means that extended families’ willingness to support their most troubled and neediest members declines as persistent unemployment leaves the least educated, or least experienced adults without incomes for months or years.

Community agencies, both public and private, lose funding due to budget cuts and reduced philanthropic contributions. Supports to low income families are steadily reduced by state governments struggling to balance budgets. Policymakers may lose a sense of community well-being and national purpose and mainly act to protect the constituencies that elected them. Collective bonds are weakened as individuals, families, communities, political parties and policymakers return to the exclusive pursuit their own interests. Furthermore, in recent years the disdain for the poor has been evident in both major political parties. This is the social context which fuels substance abuse among low income populations, i.e., the gradual deterioration in the cohesion of social bonds at multiple levels, along with large reductions in a range of critical family support services on which many low income individuals and families depend.

Substance abuse strains and sometimes destroys interpersonal relationships, endangers the capacity to reliably parent children, especially babies and toddlers, and often leads to criminal behavior necessary to support a drug habit. The weakening of social bonds is both a cause and consequence of drug/alcohol dependence.

Child Welfare Trends

The U.S. foster care population declined steadily from 2000-2011, from 568,000 at its peak to 397,000 in FY 2012; furthermore, the decline in foster care was even larger than it appears at first glance as a number of states extended eligibility to age 21 during the past decade. Between the last quarter of 2012 and the first quarter of 2014, the number of children in foster care nationally increased by slightly more than 4%.

However, of greater concern than the small increase in foster care is the double digit increase in out-of-home care in several states and communities located in different regions of the country: Miami-Dade County, Florida, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arizona, and more recently Montana, along with very large increases in CPS reports in some cities and states, e.g., Maine and Oklahoma. These increases in CPS reports and entries into care are invariably associated with substance abuse: an epidemic of heroin and other opiates in New England and some other areas of the country, a resurgence of methamphetamine use in the Midwest, the illegal distribution of prescription painkillers
in the Southeast, and the widespread use of less familiar drugs such as K-2 in some communities. The increased use of dangerous drugs is evident in all regions of the country, but the effects on numbers of CPS reports and the growth in foster care have been highly variable among cities and states. It appears that many cities and states have policies and practices in place that have acted as a brake on the growth of foster care, though it remains uncertain to what extent and how long these “brakes” will be effective in social environments impacted by large increases in substance abuse and drug dependence among low income families.

What Can Be Done?

The effects of severe recessions on family breakdown take a few years to become evident because (a) familial and community bonds may be strengthened during the first months and years of a national emergency (b) the reduction of philanthropic support and public funding of support services is gradual, not immediate and (c) it takes time for pursuit of self-interest to weaken extended family relationships and undermine community institutions. In a similar way, years may be required to strengthen and restore communal bonds in ways that are evident and measureable. Nevertheless, many communities around the country have had the experience of developing community collaborations to combat methamphetamine and/or heroin distribution and dependence, youth violence, teen pregnancies and other social ills. A mobilized community is a powerful force for good or ill. I have frequently been surprised by the innovative practices communities develop with a modest amount of funding once leaders, public and private agencies and community groups become highly motivated to achieve results. Communities can mobilize comprehensive initiatives that include law enforcement agencies, treatment providers, prevention advocates, churches, child welfare, public health, education and others with strong leadership. These collaborations are not difficult to develop when social ills resulting from violence, substance abuse, domestic violence or child maltreatment are evident to most concerned citizens.

However, ‘vision’ is required to organize and sustain community investments in comprehensive supports for low income families. These proposals may be politically divisive and viewed as unaffordable in states experiencing chronic revenue shortfalls. Scholars, advocates and philanthropists may not agree regarding programmatic investments, or even whether limited funding should be spent on early childhood
education, public health, child welfare or some other public sector. Furthermore, large public or philanthropic investments in low income children and their families may require a decade or two to pay dividends. Funders who expect large scale effects from programmatic investments within a few years are naïve. Some well-known prevention programs such as Nurse Family Partnership and Chicago Parent Child Centers have taken 15 years to demonstrate most of their effects on reduced child maltreatment rates. For these reasons, famous initiatives such as Harlem Children’s Zone usually require charismatic leadership (which is difficult to replicate) or the sustained support of
wealthy foundations, or both.

My view is that fractious debates regarding the potential effects of various evidenced based prevention programs when taken to scale are misguided because policymakers and scholars can’t know whether the promise of these programs as indicated by studies in a few communities will be realized if and when cities and states implement them statewide or in multiple communities and neighborhoods. “Betting the bank” on one or two prevention programs is a foolish mistake which policymakers should avoid.

Achieving results at a community and state level requires many various initiatives and programs with common goals, i.e., to support equal opportunity for low income children and a decent life and social inclusion of poor families. The implicit messages embodied in programs are, in my view, more important than specific programmatic elements, namely the message “You and your children are valuable and we are willing to invest in your positive potential.” Investments in parenting supports, or early childhood education, or early intervention in domestic violence, substance abuse or mental health conditions, as well as in ending homelessness, or dire poverty, make this message real.

Programs are important, but not as important as the social messages they convey. A substance abuse epidemic with the potential to dramatically increase family and community breakdown, endanger the future of young people and the working poor, and increase the risk of serious health problems and early death of persons in vulnerable groups suggests that some harsh social messages have been heard loud and clear in every region of the country. These messages embody or imply limited tolerance for adults struggling to make ends meet and social exclusion of many persons from mainstream institutions, for example those with prison records. It’s true, of course, that privileged young people and affluent adults often abuse drugs and alcohol, and that risky use of substances by these groups may reflect a sense of immortality or invulnerability to dire social consequences. However, the type of substance abuse that leads to child removal among ‘dirt poor’ single parent families, or reduces the potential for self-sufficiency among individuals with weak or nonexistent social support suggests an implicit willingness to trade in a bleak future for the immediate psychic benefits provided by drugs and alcohol.

It’s uncertain whether ambitious and exemplary initiatives which make sustained investments in the growth and development of poor children can overcome the powerful effects of deepening income inequality, a social acid that eats away at most forms of community solidarity and a sense of shared challenges and opportunities. One of the most important research findings of recent years is that extreme income inequality contributes to poor health outcomes for all income groups, not just the poor, possibly by intensifying tensions in everyday interactions among persons of all social classes. Nevertheless, a main goal of social policy, after meeting the immediate basic needs of vulnerable populations, should be to create hope of a better future for all social classes. The immediate appeal of dangerous substances must be combated by the attraction of a potentially bright future. To this end, there needs to be some fresh thinking about how to instill this hope in troubled and economically disadvantaged populations.

See the October 2014 Sounding Board where I discuss the response of child welfare agencies to an increase in substance abuse and to an increase in entries into foster care.


Berger, R., Fromkin, J., Stutz, H., Makoroff, K., Scribano, P., Feldman, K., Tu, L., Fabio, A., “Abusive Head Trauma During A Time of Increased Unemployment: A Multicenter Analysis,” Pediatrics, published online, September 19, 2011.

Durkheim, Emile, On Suicide, Penguin Books, first published, 1897.

Wood, J., Medina, S., Feudtner, C. Luan, X., Localio, R., Fieldston, E., Rubon, D., “Local Macroeconomic Trends and Hospital Admissions for Child Abuse,” Pediatrics, published online on September 19, 2011.


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