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An Overview of Selected Data on Children in Vulnerable Families

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Document date: August 10, 2006
Released online: August 10, 2006

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

The text below is a portion of the complete document.


This paper presents trends over time in the number of children in particularly vulnerable families, including families facing such risks as domestic violence, child maltreatment, substance abuse, depression, and childhood disabilities. These families are of particular importance to policymakers given the considerable risk to children's safety and development, the challenges to parents' ability to support a family as well as raise children when they are facing these major stressors, and the potential requirement for strong public or community roles to meet children's needs when parents cannot.

Providing data on these different family risks in one paper does not mean to suggest that they are similar or that they always occur together. Families raising a child with a disability differ greatly from families in which a parent experiences depression or families with incidents of domestic violence or child maltreatment. Nevertheless, all these families face stressors that go beyond the challenges faced by other low-income families. In addition, while these stressors can occur separately, there is evidence that they often occur in tandem, which can leave families particularly vulnerable. For example, in families where domestic violence occurs between adults, child abuse may be more likely (Appel and Holden 1998; Edelson 1999). Similarly, parents that abuse or neglect their children often struggle with substance problems or depression (DeBellis et al. 2001; Dube et al. 2001; Chaffin, Kelleher, and Hollenberg 1996; Kelleher et al. 1994). Research also suggests that children with disabilities have higher rates of abuse or neglect (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 1993).

While families at all income levels can experience these challenges, many challenges are disproportionately frequent among low-income families. As illustrated more fully below, depression is more prevalent among low-income parents. Domestic violence and child abuse also occur more frequently in low-income families. There is considerable dispute in some of these fields about whether this disproportionate occurrence reflects greater surveillance of low-income families, the greater stresses of poverty, or other factors. Regardless of whether the occurrence of the stress is associated with low income, the challenges faced by families are likely more difficult to cope with when they have fewer resources. For instance, raising a child with a disability can require significant time, attention, and resources that a low-income parent may not be able to offer. Coping with depression or substance abuse and trying to maintain low-wage work can make it difficult for parents to adequately care for their children. And the stresses of juggling the demands of daily life with little income may put a significant burden on couple's relationship, and these tensions may erupt into violence.

This paper distills some of the key trends related to these risks. Where available, we provide data on low-income families in particular, as well as families at all income levels. We draw on several sources of data, including the National 2 An Overview of Selected Data on Children in Vulnerable Families Survey of America's Families (NSAF), as well as administrative data and other survey estimates. Some of the trends presented suggest good news and others point to areas that will continue to require focus, creative solutions, and resources. As state and local policymakers, funders, and researchers look ahead to craft policies and practices to better the lives of children, these trends illuminate some of the key challenges that may arise in addressing the needs of vulnerable low-income families.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).



Topics/Tags: | Children and Youth | Families and Parenting | Poverty, Assets and Safety Net


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