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July 14, 2013 3:46 PM What the austerians hath wrought: significantly higher rates of child abuse — and fewer resources for its victims

By Kathleen Geier

So! This weekend, thus far, we’ve covered the fact that Texas just passed one of the worst abortion laws in the nation; the news that Democratic attempts to hold onto the U.S. Senate in the 2014 election just became significantly more difficult; the infuriating, and utterly depressing, Trayvon Martin verdict; and the economically and socially devastating impact of the federal budget sequester.

Are you totally bummed out yet? Is your weekend ruined? If not, here is some more news that might make even the likes of Debbie Downer start screaming, “Enough already!” In a chilling op-ed in today’s New York Times, economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz writes that, contrary to earlier reports, the incidence of child abuse and neglect have not declined during the Great Recession. In fact, they are up — way up.

Why did we mistakenly believe that child abuse was on the wane? According to Stephens-Davidowitz, many fewer child abuse cases were being reported to the authorities. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Social service budgets were slashed, which meant that overburdened teachers, health care professionals, and social service workers didn’t have the time or resources to follow up on child abuse reports. And the reduced hours and longer waiting times at child abuse agencies and hotlines discouraged many people from making reports in the first place.

That explanation seems plausible, in theory. But how do we know for sure that that’s what was going on? Stephens-Davidowitz used a novel technique to estimate child abuse rates: Google searches. He writes:

Google queries provide an immensely powerful database, particularly on sensitive topics that people don’t discuss freely with pollsters or authorities or even the friends and family members they know best. Online, often unobserved, we tend to be very honest
I examined a heart-wrenching category of searches: those likely to have been made by recent victims of abuse who were old enough to use Google. These searches included “My dad hit me” or “Why did my father beat me?” I also examined a more common class of Google queries: those that include the words “child abuse” or “child neglect.” In some sense, this Google data is like a survey of how many people suspected child maltreatment at a given time. If you see something that worries you, you may well ask Google about “child abuse signs” or “child abuse effects.”

Some caveats: I would like to see a copy of Stephens-Davidowitz’s study, and to know more about the Google search technique in general. Do other researchers consider it to be a kosher methodology? What is the relationship between the number of Google hits and the rate at which other, directly measurable social phenomena related to the searches occur? That said, I would guess his research is probably on the mark. He’s a recently minted Harvard Ph.D., and these days most professional economists receive excellent, rigorous training in quantitative research methods.

Moreover, Stephens-Davidowitz points to additional pieces of evidence that appear to confirm his findings. For example, he describes child fatalities as the type of abuse that is “least susceptible to reporting pressure,” and notes that there was “a comparative increase in these rates in states that were hardest hit by the recession.” Also, his research found that “when a particular group’s budget [such as budgets for teachers, health care workers, etc.] is reduced, it reports fewer cases of maltreatment.”

Though he doesn’t say it outright, Stephens-Davidowitz implies that there is a strong causal relationship between the rise of child abuse and the economic downturn.

Controlling for pre-recession rates and national trends, states that had comparatively suffered the most had increased search rates for child abuse and neglect. Each percentage point increase in the unemployment rate was associated with a 3 percent increase in the search rate for “child abuse” or “child neglect.”

He also notes that, “On weeks that unemployment claims rose, Google searches related to child abuse increased.”

There are many layers of painful irony here. Not only does the recession appear to be causing more cases of child abuse and neglect, it is also preventing victims from accessing services that might help them (because the budgets for such services have been cut), as well as creating the false belief that the incidence of child abuse is in decline (again, because budget cuts discourage people from making reports to the authorities). Finally, Stephens-Davidowitz notes that the economic impact of child abuse “will be felt long after the economy fully recovers”:

The evidence from medical researchers and psychologists is overwhelming: as adults, victims of child abuse or neglect will face higher probabilities of mental illness and criminal behavior and lower probabilities of employment and stable family lives.

So, to recap: first, financial elites wrecked the global economy. The result was an historic recession that, among other things, led to sharp increases in the numbers of children who were beaten, neglected, and even killed. While all this was going on, stinking rich greedheads, the lunatic right, and their assorted useful idiots made things even worse by banding together to demand budget cuts. Those cuts deepened and prolonged the recession, which led to even more child abuse, and also eviscerated social services. The resulting social service cuts created the false belief that the rate of child abuse was declining, because it made it more difficult to report abuse. Those same cuts also aggravated the negative impact of the abuse, by making it harder for victims to get help.

But hey, ultra-deserving gazillionaires like Mitt Romney got to hold onto their massive fortunes, their lavish homes, and various other can’t-live-without-‘em perks (a stable full of horses for Ann!) And anyway, what are few more dead kids, compared to near-historic low tax rates? Can’t you just smell the freedom?

UPDATE: Seth Stephens-Davidowitz sent me an email with additional information about his paper and his work. It answers many of the questions I posed earlier. Here is the text, which he has allowed me to copy here:

I thought I would help with a few of the questions you posed:
First, a copy of my study can be found here.
Second, I would say that the use of Google data is controversial. I am one of its biggest proponents and wrote my entire dissertation using it. (My other papers can be found on my website, at sethsd.com.) But there are certainly plenty of people who do not support the methodology.
Third, the Google data tend to correlate very strongly with underlying beliefs and actions that can be measured. I discuss a whole bunch of these in my racism paper
For example, Google search rates for God correlate almost perfectly with belief in God. Google search rates for “African American” correlate almost perfectly with the size of the black population. Google search rates for “Jewish” correlate almost perfectly with the size of the Jewish population. Google search rates for “gun” correlate almost perfectly with the gun ownership rate., etc.
Overall, this paper uses some new methodology, but also some old methodology. I think the bulk of the evidence that I could find points to the story that I suggested. But it is certainly not the last word.
Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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