Do laypersons conflate poverty and neglect?

Kelli L. Dickerson, Jennifer Lavoie, Jodi A. Quas

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objective: Child neglect is often initially identified via adults who come into contact with children and report their suspicions to the authorities. Little is known about what behaviors laypersons view as constituting neglect and hence worth reporting. We examined laypersons’ perceptions of neglect and poverty, particularly how these factors independently and jointly shaped laypersons’ decisions about what warrants official reporting of neglect, and how laypersons’ socioeconomic background related to their decisions. Hypotheses: We anticipated that neglect would be correctly perceived as such, but that extreme poverty would also be perceived as neglect, with these latter perceptions being most pronounced among laypersons of higher socioeconomic background. Method: In two studies, adults read vignettes about a mother’s care of her daughter and rendered decisions about whether the mother’s behavior met the legal standard of neglect and should be reported. In Study 1 (N=365, 55% female, mean age=37.12 years), indicators of poverty and neglect were manipulated. In Study 2 (N=474, 53% female, mean age=38.25 years), only poverty (housing instability: homelessness versus not) was manipulated. Results: Laypersons often conflated poverty and neglect, especially in circumstances of homelessness. Laypersons of lower socioeconomic background were less likely to perceive neglect in general and to report an obligation to make a referral (R2s ranged from 17-26%, odds ratios ranged from 2.24-3.08). Conclusions: Laypersons may over-report neglect in circumstances of poverty. Increasing public awareness of how to recognize and separate neglect from poverty may enhance identification of vulnerable children and families.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)311-326
Number of pages16
JournalLaw and Human Behavior
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 31 Aug 2020


  • neglect
  • poverty
  • homelessness
  • perceptions
  • reporting decisions

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