Social Justice in Child Welfare

Poverty, Race and Power in Child Welfare

(Originally published June 2020)

NOTE: This commentary and those that follow will advance a social justice agenda for child welfare in the United States. The first Sounding Board will discuss “Poverty, Race and Power in Child Welfare.” The second (July) SB will address reunification policy and practice and recommend revision of the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). The third SB (August) will offer a critique of “Mistaken Ideas and Effective Strategies in Social Justice.”


This is one of few times in recent decades when a critical mass of practitioners, policymakers and advocates appear open to a reconsideration of child welfare policy and practice from a social justice perspective. There have been many child welfare reform initiatives in states and large cities during recent years, usually following high-profile child deaths. Some states have made persistent efforts to reduce the size of their foster care populations, often combined with efforts to reduce racial disproportionality in out-of-home care. However, there have only been infrequent attempts to ameliorate the effects of poverty and income inequality on child welfare or to reduce the extent to which child welfare agencies depend on coercion and legal structure in their interactions with parents on open cases.  

The Goals of a Social Justice Agenda


  • Identify social and economic conditions, and policies and    practices and that contribute to structural racism, i.e.,” a system in which public policies, institutional practices and cultural representations and other norms work … to perpetuate racial group inequity, “ (Racial Equity Tools),  including poverty and income inequality.  

  • Describe how the same strategies needed to combat structural racism will also dramatically improve the treatment of low-income White families, especially “dirt poor” White families.

  •  Reformulate the relationship between public health and mental health agencies with child protection programs to improve family support services and reduce the use of coercive practices in child welfare agencies.

  •  Change states’ neglect statutes to make the delivery of poverty related services a central feature of CPS practice.

  • Advocate for a change in federal law that will de-emphasize the utilization of court structure in a large percentage of foster care placements.

  •  Eliminate adoption financial incentives intended to increase adoptions; or offer similar reunification incentives to states.  

  • Give birth parents with child welfare histories a larger role in review and oversight of agency practices.  


Poverty and Race in Child Welfare


Poverty, income inequality and racial bigotry are thoroughly enmeshed in structural racism, but they are not the same. If racism in the U.S. was eliminated when racial minorities achieve higher income and/or political power, Black elected officials, college faculty, doctors, lawyers, etc. would not be subject to harassment at the hands of police. In White America, upper middle class status confers immunity from police harassment, or even rudeness; but not so in Black America where some police officers feel free to hassle or attack Blacks in all social classes for just about anything, e.g.,” driving while Black”.  Nevertheless, families with open child welfare cases are overwhelmingly poor, often severely poor.  A 2009 survey of several hundred parents with open child welfare cases in Washington State found that almost half (48%) had an annual income of less than $10,000, and one-fifth of parents had no income from welfare or work and did not live with a person whose annual income exceeded $20,000. Almost sixty percent of parents with children in foster care had an annual income less than $10,000!  This is not just poor; it’s severely poor, “dirt poor” in the language of the South. One quarter of all families in the U.S. investigated by CPS are severely poor. (see NSCAW II)   


The severity of poverty has a large effect on rates of child maltreatment (as reflected in four National Incidence Studies) and is compounded when families live in neighborhoods or communities with concentrated poverty, i.e., 30-40% or more of families are poor as defined by the federal poverty standard.  Poverty and neglect (especially chronic neglect) are strongly associated, so much so that some child welfare critics maintain that most alleged child neglect occurs due to poverty; or reflects nothing but poverty.  I will discuss this half-truth in the August Sounding Board. However, for the purpose of this commentary, the important point is that a community’s child poverty rate shapes its child welfare system.  Roughly speaking, the higher a census tract’s child poverty rate, the larger the percentage of screened-in CPS reports containing allegations of child neglect and the larger the percentage of child victims found to be neglected.


In the U.S., substantiated victims of neglect outnumber child victims of physical abuse by 4-1 and victims of sexual abuse by more than 10-1.  Furthermore, child neglect has the most detrimental impact on infants and other young children.  U.S. foster care systems have far higher rates of infant placement and placements of other preschool children than child welfare systems in Western European countries which have much lower child poverty rates.  


Income Inequality and Race/Ethnicity                                            


  • The poverty rate for African American women was 21.8% in 2018; Native American women’s poverty rate was 22% and Hispanic women’s poverty rate was 17.6 % in 2018 vs. 12.9% for White women and 7% for White men.

  •  African Americans and Native Americans have rates of extreme poverty (15-16%) three times greater than the rate for White Americans (5%).

  • African American families are much more likely than White families to live in neighborhoods and communities with concentrated poverty (as much as 14 times more likely).

  • The median White family had 41 times more wealth ($146,984) than the median Black family ($3,557) in 2018.

  • “The median Black family saw their wealth drop by more than half after adjusting for inflation from 1983-2016 vs. a 33% increase for the median White household.” (Income


Effects of Extreme Income Inequality                              


  • Low income African Americans live 10-20 years less on average than upper middle-class Whites.

  •  African Americans and Native Americans have higher rates of homelessness than White adults.    

  •  Severely poor families have higher rates of food insecurity and experiences of hunger (see $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Edin and Shaefer). These authors make clear that it is still possible for children in the U.S. to gradually starve.

  • Severely poor parents have much higher rates of mood disorders, i.e., depression, anxiety and PTSD, and interpersonal violence than middle class Americans.

  •  Severely poor families have higher rates of child maltreatment, especially child neglect and higher rates of family disruption. I will address the mistaken idea that racial/ethnic groups in the U.S. have similar rates of child maltreatment regardless of economic differences in the August Sounding Board.  This cannot be true if poverty has a large causal influence on child maltreatment rates. The belief of many advocates that racial disproportionality in child welfare systems is primarily due to racial bias in child welfare decision making is mostly (but not wholly) false. Differences in poverty rates is the main proximate cause of racial disproportionality in child welfare. However, the disproportionate percentage of African American youth among ‘long stayers’ in foster care and among youth placed in hotels, out of state facilities and other unsafe placements is (in part) a reflection of    institutional racism.  Indifference to bad outcomes for African American and Native American youth is a key indicator of racial bias in child welfare systems.            


The extreme income inequality that has developed in the U.S. in recent decades does more than lead to socially unjust outcomes in health and mortality, education, juvenile justice, and child welfare; social inequities of this magnitude embody social injustice. No social justice agenda that ignores these inequities can ever be effective in combating structural racism in American institutions, a reality that has already become obvious in education reform but does not seem as obvious to some proponents of anti-racism child welfare reform.  


A Social Justice Agenda that Begins with Poverty Reduction


  1. Set a national goal of reducing child poverty by half within a decade. I will discuss strategies for achieving a large reduction in child poverty rates in the August Sounding Board. This country has many outstanding poverty scholars who have developed a range of strategies for poverty reduction; and some have costed out their proposals.  The main challenge to poverty reduction is not a lack of good ideas; it’s a lack of political will. For several decades, the country’s political system has engaged in a reverse Robin Hood scenario (see Case and Deacon’s  Deaths of Despair) in which the wealthiest Americans have used their political influence to take from low and middle income families to increase their already fabulous fortunes.  

  2. Some people question whether this country can afford another war on poverty. This question is no longer credible after a bitterly divided Congress passed $3.5 trillion dollars in pandemic assistance by large majorities within a few weeks. This country is wealthy enough to achieve ambitious goals when most citizens believe that action is necessary.   Reducing poverty by half in a decade is only prohibitively expensive for persons who view poverty reduction as a low priority.

  3. Eliminate severe poverty, i.e., annual incomes less than half the federal poverty standard, i.e., $11,000-$12,000 depending on size of household. There is no programmatic workaround for parents who must struggle to survive, a reality which partially explains the repeated failure of homelessness initiatives in Seattle, the Bay area and Los Angeles. It is not true that food stamps and other benefits are as “good as cash”, an argument Edin and Shaefer demolished in $2 a day.

  4. Revise states’ neglect statutes to require that child welfare caseworkers assist parents (on open cases) who cannot meet their children’s basic needs due to poverty in connecting with community agencies which can help them or, if there is no such agency, provide funding to meet children’s basic needs. This one statutory change, if implemented in good faith, would transform the reputation of CPS with low income families from a coercive threat to a source of urgently needed support.   

  5. Increase poverty-related services, including housing support, to families on open cases. As obvious as this seems, some state child welfare systems have few or no poverty related services; or offer concrete services of no more than few hundred dollars on a one-time basis.  Any state which has differential response as part of its child protection system; but is unable to provide $1,000-$2,000 per family on open cases is wasting its investment in differential response.


Power, Caste and Child Welfare


Extreme income inequality in this country has gradually changed social classes into castes organized around educational achievement. Class differences become caste divisions when incomes and education are so unequal that members of different castes occupy different social and cultural worlds and have fundamentally different rights and opportunities, e.g., access to high quality medical and dental care or higher education.  This country’s caste system is peculiar in that it retains vestiges of the Jim Crow era in which caste was based on skin color and racial identity, while aiming to be a meritocracy based on educational achievement. The U.S. has three castes: (1) persons with a B.A. or advanced degree (about one-third of adults, 25 and older), and persons with exceptional athletic ability or creative achievements   

(2) semi-educated adults with some community college or technical training who have challenging middle income jobs (3) adults with no more than a high school degree who are stuck in the low wage economy or are chronically unemployed.  Large differences in practically every facet of life and in health and mortality outcomes have developed between adults with BA degrees and adults without BA degrees. (see Deaths of Despair)   


Cultural differences among Whites have been explored at length in Coming Apart: The State of White America: 1960-2010 by Charles Murray and Tightrope: Americans Reach for Hope by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.  Caste systems have several common features wherever they occur: (a) an upper caste will find it challenging to appreciate the humanity of lower caste persons. European and Russian aristocrats did not believe that peasants, farmers, shopkeepers or educated non-aristocrats were their equals; they took their superiority (based on genetics, family ties and military prowess) for granted. Winners in a meritocracy are likely to assume their excellence has been demonstrated by educational achievement; (b) it is easy for an upper caste to utilize coercive methods with lower caste individuals, often without much reflection.  Any challenge to the prerogatives of caste is quickly met with force or coercion; and it’s easy to default to orders and legal mandates when cooperative approaches are met with resistance by lower caste individuals ; (c) members of an upper caste will often assume that a child from the lowest caste would be better off raised in their family, given the increase in opportunities and privileges;   (d) regardless of political beliefs and social values, it will be difficult for an upper caste person to share power with someone from a lower caste. Power sharing between upper caste and lower caste individuals tends to be token, temporary and unsettling.   


Boundaries between castes in the U.S. have become better defined in recent decades; and the three castes are becoming more internally differentiated. Graduates from any old four-year college, or for-profit university, are not part of the same social and cultural worlds as graduates of elite universities, or persons with advanced degrees, or the wealthiest Americans, and do not have the same opportunities for social advancement.    


Perhaps it goes without saying that a socially just caste system is an oxymoron; the best that can be hoped for in a caste system is to reduce the use of injurious practices.  When the underlying rules of caste (often barely conscious or unconscious)  are combined with implicit and explicit racial biases left over from the Jim Crow era, some (but not all) child welfare caseworkers are likely to be too quick to use coercion in working with low income Black and Native American families when partnerships with parents would be more effective. Furthermore, federal law requires the use of legal structure rather than voluntary placement agreements after a few months of foster care placement, a policy preference that should be reversed for children in foster care older than 3 at entry into care.


In addition, just as police have been unwisely delegated social work functions with homeless and or mentally ill persons, CPS caseworkers have been given too much responsibility for intervention in the lives of troubled families. Policymakers and advocates should adopt the guideline: a CPS investigation/assessment shall never be the first or only offer of services to a family except when a child has been severely abused or neglected. Child welfare reform must include the building (or rebuilding) of public health and mental health systems, which require the resources to reach out to families with an offer of voluntary services before a CPS report leads to an investigation.


Finally, public agencies need to make concerted efforts to utilize and compensate parents with child welfare histories in an advisory and oversight role and in mentoring parents with open cases. This can only occur with inspired leadership as consulting with parents regarding policy and practice is dissonant with the logic of caste; and is likely to meet strong internal resistance in child welfare agencies.




Collins, C., Hamilton, D., Asante-Muhammed, D. & Hoxie, J., Ten Solutions to Bridge the Racial Wealth Divide (2019), Institute for Policy Studies, Washington, D.C., available online.


Deacon, A. & Case, A., Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (2020), Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.


Duffin, E., Poverty rates in U.S. by ethnic group, 2018 (2019), Statista, available online.  


Edin, K. & Shaefer, H.L., $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (2015), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co., New York City, NY.


Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (2010), Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, Washington, D.C., available online.


Kristof, N. & WuDunn, S., Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope (2020), Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY.


Marcenko, M., Lyons, S. & Courtney, M.,  Mother’s experiences, resources and needs: The context for reunification,” Children and Youth Services Review, vol. 33, (3), March 2011.


Markovits, D., The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class and Devours the Elite (2019), Penguin Press, New York, NY.


Marmot, M., The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Health and Longevity (2004), MacMillan, New York, NY.  


Murray, C., Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (2012), Crown Forum, New York, NY.


National Study of Child and Adolescent Well Being, National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect, Administration for Children and Families, Washington, D.C.


Racial Equity Tools,  


©Dee Wilson


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