It turns out that in some rural areas, at least, the neighborhood market can be more than a great place to pick up a gallon of milk. It could also be a tool to help fight child maltreatment, according to a new study by Georgia Tech researchers Lindsey Bullinger and Kelley Fong.
Bullinger, Fong, and Julia Fleckman, a colleague from the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, found that the presence of an additional store accepting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits in the least densely populated areas of Connecticut was associated with an 11.3% drop in substantiated cases of child maltreatment.
While the data included in their study were from Connecticut, Bullinger and Fong believe the effects may be applicable nationwide.
“This research further demonstrates how large-scale public policy initiatives may be more successful than targeted, family-level interventions in helping prevent child maltreatment," said Bullinger. She is an assistant professor in the School of Public Policy and the study’s lead author.
The study, published in Economics & Human Biology, is the latest in a series of studies by Bullinger — some of which, Fong also participated in — finding that policy steps such as increasing the minimum wage, promoting family leave, providing more access to Medicaid, or preventing evictions, can dramatically reduce the incidence of child maltreatment and improve child and family well-being.
“We often think about SNAP as a strategy for addressing food insecurity,” said Fong, an assistant professor in the School of History and Sociology. “But these findings show how expanding public benefits access also has positive spillover effects on the child welfare system.”
The study is based on U.S. Census data for neighborhoods with more than 50 children in Connecticut and state retailer and child maltreatment report data from 2011 to 2015.
In each neighborhood, the researchers tracked the number of stores that accepted SNAP along with the number of reports and substantiated incidents of child maltreatment and followed the fluctuations in maltreatment reports over time. They also took steps to exclude other factors that could have influenced maltreatment numbers, such as statewide policy changes and ZIP Code-level unemployment rates.
After accounting for those variables, they found that in the least densely populated parts of Connecticut, the presence of one additional store accepting SNAP benefits was associated with a 4.4% reduction in child maltreatment reports along with the 11.3% drop in the number of substantiated cases.
They did not find a similar effect in more densely populated areas.
The researchers point to the difficulties rural residents may face in traveling long distances to stores that accept SNAP benefits in areas where public transportation is often scarce as one potential reason, Fong said.
As for why having a nearby store that takes SNAP benefits helps reduce child maltreatment, Bullinger said having a convenient place to purchase food with benefits may help relieve financial pressure on families and reduce parental stress — both significant contributors to child maltreatment.
“Parents can use these benefits where they weren’t able to before, and that lowers mental stress and potentially frees up income in their household to better care for their kids,” she said.
Bullinger and Fong note that the effects may be at least as intense in sparsely populated rural areas across the country where public transportation and food pantries are less common.
Their paper, “Proximity to SNAP-Authorized Retailers and Child Maltreatment Reports,” is published in the August 2021 edition of Economics & Human Biology. It is available at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ehb.2021.101015.
The School of Public Policy and the School of History and Sociology are units of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts.