RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Could states see fewer cases of child abuse and neglect simply by making it easier to receive some federal food benefits?

A study co-authored by a University of North Carolina assistant professor found states that expanded SNAP eligibility saw fewer reports to Child Protective Services for suspected child abuse and neglect.

“We saw when states take advantage of these policies, this relates to decreases in the number of CPS investigative reports,” said Dr. Anna Austin, an assistant professor at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health and the study’s primary author.

The study, published last month by JAMA Pediatrics, looked at more than 29 million CPS-investigated reports across all 50 states and focused on the differences among places that eliminated the asset test, the income limit or both for eligibility for the supplemental nutrition assistance program.

Regular SNAP regulations say most households may not have more than $2,750 in assets or savings, and household income generally must be at or below 130 percent of the poverty line.

But states have the authority to get rid of those limits by enacting broad-based categorical eligibility (BBCE) policies.

The study found states that did that had significantly fewer reports of abuse and neglect on an annual per capita basis for every 1,000 children who live there.

  • States that eliminated the asset test had an average of 8.2 fewer CPS-investigated reports per capita per year than states that did not.
  • States that increased the income limit had an average of five fewer CPS-investigated reports per capita per year than states that did not.
  • States that did both had an average of 9.3 fewer CPS-investigated reports per capita per year than states that did not.
  • And those drops became deeper as more time passed, with larger decreases after eight years of policy changes than after two years.

“This wasn’t too surprising, given that there is growing evidence that state policies and programs that help families meet these basic needs have an impact in reducing (CPS) involvement,” Austin said.

The study comes as people in North Carolina and other states will soon receive about $95 less per month because the emergency allotments from the federal government for COVID-19 are scheduled to end in March.

Austin said the study’s roots are in a previous project in which women and their children explained how a lack of access to food, diapers, clothing and other basic needs affected their stress levels and mental health.

She says one in three children in the U.S. will experience a CPS investigation by the time they turn 18.

“That really prompted me to think, sort of as a larger society, what are we doing to help families meet their basic needs so that caregivers can create the environments that they want for their children?” Austin asked.

It builds on previous research that found that food insecurity is a risk factor for reports of neglect — which accounts for the majority of those reports — and abuse to CPS.

And there are several ways to explain why they correlate.

“Neglect is a really broad category but it often relates to children lacking sufficient material resources and basic needs like sufficient food, clothing, housing, to really ensure their safety and well being,” Austin said. “And so that, I think, explains why food insecurity increases the chances a family will come into contact with CPS.

“I think, as well, food insecurity is really stressful for families,” she added. “I think it increases parent and caregiver stress, and that can affect parent and caregiver behaviors toward their children and potentially increase the likelihood of becoming involved with (CPS).”

Austin hopes policy-makers across the country pay attention to her research. It could have more of an impact across the nation than in our state because she says North Carolina already is “doing a really good job.”

The state already has eliminated the asset test and increased the income limit.

“I think across the U.S. and in North Carolina, where we see room for improvement is that not all households and families who are eligible for SNAP are participating in the program,” Austin said.