Recent News Releases

“No More Band-Aids”: A Call for Interdisciplinary Collaboration to Support Minority Children and Families During and After COVID-19

April 1, 2021

By Sophie Hurewitz, Duke undergraduate student ’22

The 2021 Sulzberger Distinguished Lecture Series featured Dr. Cynthia Garcia Coll who has devoted the past 30 years of her career studying child development. An adjunct professor in the Pediatrics Department at the University of Puerto Rico Medical School and Professor Emerita at Brown University, Dr. Garcia Coll was introduced by The Center for Child and Family Policy’s own Dr. Lisa Gennetian as having expanded the field beyond the “white, Western-centric, sometimes patriarchal perspective.”

Dr. Garcia Coll began her presentation by sharing the distressing reality that the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic downfall has had dramatically higher impacts on Black communities, Indigenous communities, and people of color (BIPOC) than on non-BIPOC populations. Emphasizing that existing racism and inequality are large factors contributing to the pandemic’s impact on BIPOC populations, Dr. Garcia Coll highlighted the notable disparities in positive COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, unemployment and economic uncertainty, food and housing insecurity, disruptions in childcare and education, failure to receive Cares Act stimulus checks, and racial or ethnic discrimination.

Dr. Garcia Coll further stated that COVID-19-related unemployment and economic uncertainty are not unique to the United States. According to 2020 data from the UN Development Programme, as a result of the pandemic the global per capita income is expected to fall around 4 percent, pushing between 40 to 60 million people into extreme poverty. COVID-19-related food insecurity is also a global problem: approximately 205 million individuals will face crisis levels of hunger as a result of the pandemic, according to the World Food Programme. “One of the issues at the world level is that we’re going backwards in many of the statistics if we don’t do something seriously, consistently, and systematically,” Dr. Garcia Coll added.

These significant and troubling racial and ethnic disparities extend far beyond economic and food instability into much more nuanced aspects of life in a pandemic. For example, data from the 2017-2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics American Time Use Survey reveals that only about 20 percent of Black or African American individuals and about 15 percent  of Hispanic or Latinx individuals are able to telework. Dr. Garcia Coll reminded viewers that women of color also face a “double inequality.” “Women are on the front lines,” she explained, citing evidence that women and women of color are overrepresented in frontline worker jobs.

The degree of pandemic-related childcare and education disruptions that families have faced over the past year are directly correlated to racial and ethnic disparities in the American workforce. Dr. Garcia Coll highlighted the Society for Research in Child Development’s work revealing how the closing of childcare centers and schools resulted in increased stress for BIPOC parents and caregivers, lower quality education for BIPOC children as a result of disparities in access to computers and Internet at home, a loss of food stability as a result of decreased school-based food services, regression in special education goals, and an overall decrease in academic and peer socialization for BIPOC children.

Dr. Garcia Coll urged attendees to consider why the impact of COVID-19 on BIPOC families and children is so much worse than for others. “Hurricane Katrina and Maria,” she explained, “were two episodes that really showed how inequality and racism affects a disaster… a natural disaster or a man-made disaster.” Dr. Garcia Coll emphasized the importance of theoretical frameworks in understanding the intersection of global economic and social disparities for people of color. Her Integrative Model, first developed in 1996, “was the first time that the words racism, prejudice, discrimination, and oppression were used to talk about children’s development.”

An Integrative Model of Child Development

“Every society has social stratification,” Dr. Garcia Coll acknowledged, “and in the United States, it’s been basically race, social class, ethnicity, and gender.” The Integrative Model illustrates how resources flow, or don’t flow, to populations based on social processes and classifications. These structural and societal mechanisms “become a major force in the development of families and children.” It is for this reason that Dr. Garcia Coll underscored the importance of “systems and elements that help ‘set the odds’” for BIPOC families and children. She urged audience members to “start way earlier than [when] we intervene right now.”

So what now? How do we support BIPOC families and children in overcoming these increasing disparities? Dr. Garcia Coll challenged participants to consider the following: “We need to think about, as a world, are we going to go back [in history]… are we going to allow these disasters to push us back just because we are not willing to work on the root causes?”

In her work, Dr. Garcia Coll has identified numerous areas in which the United States can better support BIPOC families and children, including better acknowledging and addressing racism and the national scope of inequality, dealing with the roots of the problems instead of the symptoms, and working systematically and preventatively to support BIPOC communities.

“If we want to prevent what has happened with the pandemic… we need to have people working at the individual, working at the community, working at the policy, but coordinated,” Dr. Garcia Coll advised, “we need to be working in partnership with communities.” To better integrate American systems of intervention, Dr. Garcia Coll called for the development of cross-sector initiatives to more effectively align strategies to address barriers in data sharing, financing, and other challenges to collaboration. She also emphasized the importance of early intervention and the detection of early-life adversity, cultural competency, the improvement of trauma-informed referral and intervention systems, increased access to parent and caregiver support programs and policies, and the development of initiatives to provide comprehensive wraparound services.

“No more Band-Aids,” urged Dr. Garcia Coll. Instead, we must employ “evidence-based, integrated, systemic, intergenerational, and interdisciplinary” approaches to support BIPOC families and children.

Additional Resources and Events: 

Society for Research in Child Development, Child Development in a Diverse Majority Society Lecture Series: Constructing the ‘Other’

Society for Research in Child Development Child Evidence Briefs:

Sophie Hurewitz is a junior at Duke majoring in Neuroscience with a minor in Global Health and a certificate in Child Policy Research. She plans to become a pediatrician to combine her interests in health and education policy with clinical medicine and child and adolescent development.

New Research: Parental Stress Management and Youth Outcomes

March 11, 2021

A new study co-authored by Ann Skinner looks at how parents’ management of stress together predicts how warm and affectionate they are to their adolescent children, and later how their level of warmth impacts aggression in those adolescents. The study, recently published in the Journal of Family Issues, is a departure from most of the existing literature on parental conflict as it focuses on the impact of parental stress and behavior on adolescents versus young children. Data for the study were collected over a three-year period in China, Kenya, Sweden, and Thailand. 

Results of the study show that better parental coping experienced by children at age 13 predicted higher levels of parental warmth towards their children a year later at the age of 14. For mothers who participated in the study, higher levels of maternal warmth were in turn related to less aggression in children at age 15, and higher levels of parental coping at age 13 were related to less aggressive behavior at age 15 indirectly through maternal warmth. One explanation for this finding is that when parents do not cope with stressors together as a couple, or do not feel that they are managing stress jointly, youth feel less secure within the family.  This insecurity is then linked with adjustment problems, particularly with aggression.

Journal of Family Issues »

Restoring the “American Dream” for All Children

March 4, 2021

By Sonia He, Duke undergraduate student ’22

“The United States is no longer a place where children can get ahead of their parents.”

The “American Dream,” coined in 1931 by writer James Truslow Adams, inspires children from all walks of life. To some, this signifies upward mobility—the idea that through hard work, one can go on to earn more money than one’s parents. However, America has failed to live up to these aspirations for many children—over the past 50 years, children’s chances of earning more than their parents have declined from 90 percent to 50 percent. Upon closer look, a map of upward mobility trends across the U.S. shows that this dream also depends heavily on where one grew up—low-income children from the Midwest experience significantly greater upward mobility than those from the Southeast.

Thus, the question is: How can we increase economic opportunity for children from neighborhoods with low upward mobility? The Duke Center for Child and Family Policy in collaboration with the Duke University Population Research Institute hosted Dr. Raj Chetty, William A. Ackman Professor of Economics at Harvard University, to share research findings from his work with colleagues at Opportunity Insights, using big data to address this issue. The February 24 event was part of the Sulzberger Distinguished Lecture Series, made possible through an endowment from the Arthur Sulzberger Family.

First, Dr. Chetty analyzed four characteristics that seem to drive the variation across areas in the U.S.: 1) poverty rates, 2) stability of the family structure in the community, 3) social capital, and 4) school quality. Essentially, the immediate environment in which a child lives until the age of 23 significantly affects their prospects for upward job mobility.

What about an area’s racial composition? The same map filtered by race shows that Black men earn significantly less than White men in every area across the U.S. Dr. Chetty summarizes,

It’s essentially like there are two different countries in terms of economic opportunity for Black men versus White men… for Black Americans, [achieving the American Dream is] more like being on a treadmill where even after you climb up in one generation, there are tremendous structural forces that push you back down and make you have to make the climb again.

However, despite the inter-race differences, there are still substantial variations within the same race and within the same city.

Take Durham, North Carolina, for example. In Durham’s Central Park neighborhood on the east side of the city, the average income for Black men from low-income families is just $6,900. Just a few miles to the west in Duke Forest, the average income increases to $22,000. The problem is “hyper-local,” as Dr. Chetty likes to call it. And because the problem is local, the solution must also be local.

Dr. Chetty suggested ways in which policymakers can use this data to increase economic opportunity in their communities, including at higher-education institutions. Colleges have the power to propel their low-income students to the top of the income distribution. Duke University ranks among the top in increasing student’s prospects of upward mobility; approximately half of its students who come from the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution end up reaching the top 20 percent. However, Duke enrolls a relatively low number of low-income students. Thus, to increase its contributions to increasing upward mobility, Duke must prioritize increasing access to qualified low-income students by admitting greater numbers of high-achieving, low-income students as well as transfer students from community colleges, according to Chetty.

Dr. Chetty concluded his talk by describing the disparate impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on economic opportunity. But while the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively disrupted our lives in many ways, Dr. Chetty inspired attendees to reflect on changes we can make to come out stronger and restore the American Dream for all children.

“Coming out of the Great Depression, the fundamental changes in U.S. social programs and infrastructure… led to decades of inclusive growth in the United States and some of the highest rates of economic opportunity, and I think, informed by modern data and modern science, there’s an opportunity to do that again in the United States.”

To look at some of the data and tools Dr. Chetty used in his talk, check out:

ABC Science Collaborative Helps Bridge Data Gap to Ensure Safe Reopening of N.C. Schools

February 10, 2021

By Ainsley Buck, Child Policy Research Certificate student ’22

The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the importance of collective action in problem solving. In most of our daily lives, we experience this most prominently with mask-wearing and social distancing. Collaboration is also critical on larger scales, such as in legislation and school re-openings.

The ABC Science Collaborative, a consortium of public health scientists and physicians from Duke University and the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, has fully embraced this concept in its work to safely re-open K-12 schools across North Carolina. The collaborative partners with schools and helps them make data-driven decisions to keep their faculty, staff, students and community as safe as possible. The collaborative’s ultimate goal is a successful return to in-person learning.

On February 4, 2021, the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy hosted a webinar with the co-chairs of the ABC Science Collaborative, Dr. Kanecia Zimmerman and Dr. Danny Benjamin, as well as panelists from the education sector. The session began by describing the initiative’s three-pronged approach: (1) informing evidence-based decision making; (2) delivering educational resources; and (3) advancing public health. As part of its program, the ABC Science Collaborative also developed 12 principles for reopening, with an emphasis on transparency and tracking. Notably, they have developed a mobile app and platform that allows schools to track symptoms and cases.

The initiative was established in response to COVID-19’s impact on education for Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools and has now been implemented across 11 North Carolina school districts. While the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided metric guidance for school re-opening, they did not provide specific criteria on when to transition from a virtual to hybrid or fully in-person model: the ABC Science Collaborative filled that gap. Superintendent of Wake County Public Schools Cathy Moore, emphasized the usefulness of understanding how to incorporate the data into schools’ evolving decisions.

Dr. Zimmerman noted that health professionals’ and scientists’ experience on the ground gives them a valuable perspective, introducing questions to legislators such as, “Can they actually implement that as a school?” Additionally, while the goal of school closures is to mitigate spread, the data reveals that school-acquired transmission is far less common than community-acquired transmission. Stanley Litow, professor at the Sanford School and member of the New York City Education Sector Advisory Council, echoed this sentiment, noting that schools are less vulnerable to spread than other institutions. Importantly, this information must be communicated to parents, students, and school faculty, while validating and incorporating their concerns into re-opening protocols.

Deputy Superintendent of Durham Public Schools (DPS), Nakia Hardy, notes that robust public involvement is crucial to achieve this balance: “This truly is a multi-pronged approach. When you sit in the Triangle, there are so many resources, and we really believe in a partnership.” Hardy elaborated that the collaboration allowed her to focus on DPS-specific initiatives, such as learning centers. These locations ensure access to a safe and productive learning environment.

When asked about future challenges in the 2021-2022 school year, Orange County Commissioner Dr. Amy Fowler, a pediatrician and previous Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board member, brought attention to the emotional strain of social isolation, noting that she has is seeing rising numbers of anxiety and depression cases among students in her practice. Additionally, Fowler discussed how students without access to the necessary tools would experience the most learning loss. While COVID-19 has highlighted and exacerbated inequity, panelists expressed hope that the additional attention on these inequities will shift energy into finding solutions. Moore says, “If there ever was an opportunity to re-vision, reshape, reprioritize what our needs are and how we creatively… approach education for students, it is now.”

The ABC Science Collaborative and our panelists reiterated that working together is key to achieving the safest return to normalcy. Nakia Hardy reminded us all that, “Although we are separated, we are here with you.”

The “Using Data to Advise K-12 Public School Systems during the Pandemic” webinar was sponsored by the School Research Partnership, an initiative of the Center for Child and Family Policy and the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.

Heightened Immigration Enforcement Has Troubling Impact on Babies

February 3, 2021

DURHAM, N.C. — Harsher immigration law enforcement by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement leads to decreased use of prenatal care for immigrant mothers and declines in birth weight, according to new Duke University research.

In the study, published in PLoS ONE, researchers examine the effects of the federal 287(g) immigration program after it was introduced in North Carolina in 2006. Under 287(g) programs, which are still in effect, local law officers are deputized to act as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, with authority to question individuals about immigration status, detain them, and if necessary, begin deportation proceedings.

According to the study findings, the 2006 policy change reduced birth weight by an average of 58.54 grams. It also resulted in more births of babies who were small for their gestational age. Those births rose by 2.29 percentage points.

In addition, immigrant parents used less prenatal care, meaning they either did not see a health care provider in the first trimester or missed at least half of their recommended prenatal visits.

“There are economic costs to adverse birth outcomes, both for children involved and to society,” said Marcos Rangel, co-author of the study and professor of public policy at Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Policy. “The recent uptick in ICE activities under the Trump administration may have long-lasting, harmful effects on U.S.-born citizens.”

The study is believed to be the first to examine how the 287(g) program affects infant health. Using administrative data from 2004 to 2006, researchers examined birth and maternal health outcomes for immigrant mothers residing in Mecklenburg County before and after the 287(g) program was implemented.  They then compared the Mecklenburg data with similar statistics in counties that did not adopt the programs. Mecklenburg is home to the state’s largest city, Charlotte.

The researchers did not identify why immigrant women used less prenatal care. However, the authors suggest that fear may be one motivation.

“If going to the doctor means you might run into ICE, maybe you don’t go,” said Christina Gibson-Davis, professor of public policy and sociology. “It wasn’t the intention of the policy, but pregnant women not getting adequate prenatal care is worrying.”

To understand the magnitude of the effects, the researchers compared their findings to the benefits of participating in programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

“The adverse effects of the 287(g) program essentially counteracted the beneficial effects of participating in SNAP or WIC,” said Romina Tome, an economics researcher at American Institutes for Research and recent Ph.D. graduate of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. “Exposure to policies during pregnancy can either be harmful or hurtful. These ICE policies appear to be harmful.”

This research was supported by the M.R. & C.G.D. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.


CITATION: “Heightened immigration enforcement impacts U.S. citizens’ birth outcomes: Evidence from early ICE interventions in North Carolina,” R. Tome, M.A. Rangel, C.M. Gibson-Davis, L. Bellows. February 2021, PLoS ONE. DOI:


A Third of U.S. Families Face a Different Kind of Poverty

January 6, 2021

DURHAM, N.C. — Before the pandemic, one-third of U.S. households with children were already “net worth poor,” lacking enough financial resources to sustain their families for three months at a poverty level, finds new research from Duke University.

In 2019, 57 percent of Black families and 50 percent of Latino families with children were poor in terms of net worth. By comparison, the rate for white families was 24 percent.

“These ‘net worth poor’ households have no assets to withstand a sudden economic loss, like we have seen with COVID-19,” said Christina Gibson-Davis, co-author of the study and professor of public policy and sociology at Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Policy. “Their savings are virtually nil, and they have no financial cushion to provide the basics for their children.”

The study is among the first to consider family poverty in terms of assets, not income. Using 1989-2019 data from the Survey of Consumer Finances, researchers analyzed net worth and income data from more than 19,000 U.S. households with children under age 18.

Among households with children, net worth poverty has been steadily rising over the past 30 years, the authors found. In 2019, a two-parent, two-child household was deemed to be net-worth poor if they had less than $6,500 in assets – or less than one-fourth of the federal poverty line.

Families in that category – those with perilously low levels of net worth — outnumbered families who were poor based on income.

“Uncovering this aspect of poverty, which hinges on wealth, is game-changing,” said Lisa Gennetian, co-author of the study and associate professor of early learning policy studies at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

“Most policies focus on income and families meeting their day-to-day needs,” Gennetian said. “These efforts are important. But our findings suggest that they are not helping families increase savings that help set children up for success.”

Notably, Black and Latino families were twice as likely to experience net worth poverty than to have poverty-level incomes.

“Reducing one kind of poverty isn’t helpful if another one is taking its place,” said Lisa Keister, study co-author and a professor of sociology at Duke. “Being net worth poor likely limits parents’ abilities to invest in their kids and shapes how they think about their kids’ future.”

The new research appears in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

“Even before the pandemic, many families with children were in a precarious situation,” Gibson-Davis said. “Things are not going to get better in the wake of COVID-19.”

This research was supported by the Russell Sage Foundation and the National Science Foundation (SES-2029790).

CITATION: “Net Worth Poverty in Child Households by Race and Ethnicity, 1989–2019,” C. M. Gibson-Davis, L.A. Keister, L.A. Gennetian. Journal of Marriage and Family (2020). DOI:

Despite eligibility, fewer working Hispanic families receive the EITC than previously thought, research finds

November 19, 2020

For decades, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) has been widely hailed as one of the largest and most effective poverty-reduction programs in the United States, lifting millions of families with children out of poverty each year. However, up to 20 percent of families that qualify do not collect it. Hispanic families, in particular, have historically been the least likely to know about or receive the EITC even though, compared with their peers, low- income Hispanic families with children are more likely to have adult earners in the household.  Now, new research from Duke University and Child Trends suggests that rates of EITC participation among Hispanic families are lower than previously thought. During the 2013 to 2015 tax years, 46% of Hispanic families received the EITC, compared to 55% of White and 58% of Black families.

Numerous studies have shown evidence of the program’s effectiveness, linking the tax credit to greater participation in the workforce, increased lifetime earnings, and improved child educational and health outcomes. Families receiving the EITC, conventionally as a lump sum payment when taxes are filed at the beginning of the year, report that the $3,500-4,000 boost in income helps in a variety of ways, including paying bills and making large purchases. Today, as policymakers continue debating over the next COVID-19 relief package, successful anti-poverty programs such as the EITC should remain front and center but also packaged with income supports that do not hinge on jobs or earnings given the losses incurred in 2020.

In the study released today, researchers leverage nationally representative data (called the Survey of Income and Program Participation) to examine how various state characteristics affect tax filings and EITC receipt among Hispanic families. They also gathered new detailed information across states about availability of state-level tax credits, marketing and information outreach about the EITC, and availability of information in the Spanish language. Findings further show how EITC receipt among Hispanic families with children appear responsive to state-level tax credits and certain outreach strategies.

Among the key findings of the researchers’ analysis, Hispanic families were more likely to receive the EITC in states with:

  • More generous refundable state EITC amounts. In 2015, 13 states and DC offered a more generous refundable state EITC in addition to the federal EITC (CA, CT, DE, IA, KS, MD, MA, MN, NJ, NY, VT, VA, and WI).
  • Statutes requiring public benefit programs to inform recipients about the EITC. In 2015, only 8 states (AZ, CA, ME, MA, MI, MO, NJ, and TX) had such a statute.
  • Statutes requiring employers to inform employees about the program. In 2015 only 5 states (CA, MD, NJ, TX, and VA) had such a statute.
  • Information about the EITC available in Spanish. In 2019, only 18 states provided publicly accessible information about the EITC in Spanish alongside tax filing information on the administering agency’s website.
  • A high density of free tax preparation sites. While all 50 states and Washington, DC have free tax preparation sites, availability varies. In 2019, DC had the highest density of free tax prep sites (27.9 per 100 square miles), and Alaska had the lowest (0.01 free tax prep sites per 100 square miles).
  • Policies that allow unauthorized immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses. As of 2015, 10 states (CA, CO, DE, HI, MD, NV, NM, UT, VT, WA) and the DC had such policies.
  • A larger Hispanic share of the population. While it is not possible to individual examine the specific role of any one of the above policies, states with a larger share of the Hispanic population also tend to be states that have a bundle of the above statutes and practices designed to increase EITC participation. Examples of these states include California, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York.

“The Earned Income Tax Credit is the most robust anti-poverty program we have in the U.S. that supports children in poverty with working parents. As the economic fallout of the pandemic persists, our research points to the limited reach of the EITC for Hispanic families for two reasons,” said Lisa A. Gennetian, co-author of the study and Pritzker Associate Professor of Early Learning Policy Studies at the Duke Sanford Center for Child and Family Policy. “Their receipt of the EITC was low in the first place, lower than other eligible groups; and, second, the pandemic is hitting Hispanic families particularly hard by way of its health consequences but also because of barriers that Hispanic families particularly face in receiving any economic stimulus.”

This research was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and William T. Grant Foundation.

Link to research brief:

For media inquiries, contact: Sarah Brantley,

Making the Case for Cash Transfers to Families with Children

October 14, 2020
By Lisa A. Gennetian
Co-authors: Eldar Shafir, Princeton University; J. Lawrence Aber, New York University; Jacobus DeHoop, UNICEF

Child poverty is the one of the world’s biggest existing challenges and, far too often, it is coupled with uncertain, sometimes conflict-ridden circumstances leaving millions of children dispersed, disenfranchised and stateless. The most timely and perhaps devastating example of this comes with the reality we face today amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. An additional 150 million children have been plunged into poverty since the pandemic hit earlier this year – a 15% increase – meaning approximately 1.2 billion children now live in economic deprivation, according to an analysis by UNICEF and Save the Children.

Research shows that poverty, violence, neglect and unsafe environments have long-term consequences that can handicap children later in their lives and that poverty during childhood is associated with many greater risks that compromise education and children’s future economic self-sufficiency.

We know, based on mounting research evidence, that children thrive when they have stable, nurturing environments where there’s routine, responsive parenting, proper care, and quality nutrition and education. What we do not quite fully understand well is what kinds of policy can help both reduce the negative effects of poverty and foster the circumstances for children to thrive.

My colleagues and I make the case that cash transfers to families with children is a promising possible solution. Cash transfers are a general term for a government policy, or a private initiative, that gives money to eligible people as a way of supporting their economic well-being. The act of transferring funds to recipients can be done through bank accounts, mobile phones or in person. Prior to COVID-19, more than 1 billion people were recipients of cash transfers.

The economic rationale behind cash transfers is twofold: 1) to address public or private market failures by providing income to meet consumption needs when jobs and formal earnings are insufficient or unstable and 2) to fill gaps when public or private infrastructure to support basic needs (e.g., health, housing, food) is insufficient or absent. Beyond the economic rationale, cash transfers also promote principles of human rights, dignity, and social equity. Some cash transfers are unconditional (i.e. have no strings attached, allowing recipients to use the money in any way they see fit). This type of cash transfer is sometimes criticized for fueling laziness and disincentivizing work, even though there is little evidence to support this contention. In fact, the majority of cash transfers available to people prior to COVID19 included provisions that required recipients be enrolled in school or employed.

In this work, we delve deeper than economic theory and ask what the combination of psychology with economic theory and child development can reveal about the promise of cash transfers for specifically addressing family financial distress and instability, and support children’s development.

The combined theories of economics, psychology and child development contribute to a new interdisciplinary perspective.  This perspective also points to ways that cash transfers can support the effectiveness of other investments and interventions for children by freeing up time and mental energy for caregivers and their children to participate. We back our argument by noting the promising evidence from general comprehensive reviews of cash transfers and then take a stab at summarizing a select set of case studies of cash transfers to families with children that used a randomized control study design for evaluation where relatively less is understood to date about impacts on children’s development.

Our claim is a bold one: the proposed behavioral insights informed interdisciplinary perspective gives us a lot of traction to think about cash transfers to families with children. Cash transfers to families with children are feasible and wise and conceptually grounded. A behavioral informed view can support smart, context based, design of cash transfers to families with children that can reap lots of returns. Such a policy is not a panacea for child poverty, but for sure can serve as an important companion and catalyst to the range of existing other strategies such as job development, and high quality and safe settings for children.

To learn more about Gennetian’s research on cash transfers, watch the below video overview, “Behavioral Insights and Cash Transfer to Families with Children” and a recent presentation from Gennetian during this October 14 webinar hosted by the Institute for Research on Policy, “Lessons From Cash Transfer And Basic Income Pilot Programs.”

A Simple Enrollment Change Yields Big Dividends in Children’s Early Learning Program

October 6, 2020

DURHAM, N.C. – Researchers know that texting programs can greatly benefit young children’s literacy. Now new research shows that parents’ participation in such programs can be boosted exponentially with one simple tweak: automatic enrollment, combined with the ability to opt out.

The new research from the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy appears in the Journal of Child and Family Studies.

In recent years, mounting research evidence has shown texting to be an effective, low-cost, scalable approach for engaging parents in their children’s learning. Some studies suggest text message interventions via tips for parents on how to support their child’s development can put young children’s learning 2-3 months ahead.

Yet getting parents to enroll in these beneficial programs can be challenging. With that in mind, researchers designed a study to test strategies for increasing program participation.

In the study, researchers from Duke, New York University and Brooklyn College compare different enrollment options for the text-based early literacy program, Talk to Your Baby. The text-based 26-week course is designed to promote early language development for children up to 3 years old.

The researchers studied 405 mothers who were receiving newborn home visiting services through a free, city-wide program in New York City. Using a randomized controlled study, the researchers tested whether changing the enrollment option from opt-in to opt-out affects mothers’ take up and completion of the early literacy program. Participants were predominantly low-income and racially and ethnically diverse.

Results show that when automatically enrolled with a voluntary option to opt out, 88.7 percent of study participants stayed in the program for the full 26 weeks. In contrast, only 1 percent of mothers in the control group — who heard about the program through conventional recruitment flyers — voluntarily enrolled in the program. The findings suggest parents’ desire to participate in the program may be high but their ability to follow through is challenging, researchers said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, these programs and other digital strategies for reaching parents can be especially beneficial, the researchers say.

“A lot of time is spent in developing excellent and developmentally appropriate content for these programs and relatively little time is spent understanding how to make it easy for parents to engage,” said Lisa A. Gennetian, lead author of the study and Pritzker Associate Professor of Early Learning Policy Studies at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. “Preserving parents’ choice to enroll in programs, especially those that are universally accessible and free, matters and we learned from this study that automatic enrollment minimizes burden on parents and can have enormous benefits in ways that do not interfere with their freedom.”

The study is the among the first to show that automatic enrollment is a promising strategy for increasing participation in early language and learning programs.

The study also showed the decision to stay in the program or opt out remained consistent for various subgroups. For instance, it made no difference whether this was a first birth or whether the other received public benefits. Such characteristics are sometimes cited as interfering with program participation.

“Opt-out strategies are liberally used in many aspects of our life, from organ donations to decisions about retirement benefits, and they are effective when done carefully,” Gennetian said. “Why wouldn’t we make life easier for parents and apply the same strategy of automatic enrollment with the ease of opting out?”

This research was supported by the Bezos Family Foundation and the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (R03HD090280).


CITATION: “The Impact of Default Options for Parent Participation in an Early Language Intervention,” L.A. Gennetian, L.Z Coskun, J.L. Kennedy, et al. Journal of Child and Family  Studies (2020).


For Vulnerable Families, Pandemic’s Effect on Mental Health is Swift and Harsh

September 2, 2020

DURHAM, N.C. – In just a few months, the COVID-19 pandemic swiftly and substantially worsened mental health among U.S. hourly service workers and their children – especially those experiencing multiple hardships, according to new research from the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University and Barnard College.

The study leverages real-time, daily survey data collected from Feb. 20, before the pandemic hit the U.S., to April 27, when it was well underway, to examine how the crisis affected parents’ and children’s mental well-being. The 645 survey respondents were parents of young children working in hourly service-industry positions in retail, food service or hotel industries in a large U.S. city. Nearly half (49.5%) of the participants were Black Americans, 23% were Hispanic Americans, and 83% were women.

The findings appear today in Pediatrics.

The surveys showed strong, immediate impacts of the pandemic on vulnerable families. Parents saw quick deterioration in their own mental well-being, reporting more frequent “negative moods” since March 14, the day after the first major restrictions in response to COVID-19 were announced. The majority of respondents experienced multiple hardships, including household job loss (60%), income decline (69%), caregiving burden (45%) and illness (12%).

“The COVID pandemic has created substantial hardship for working families,” said Anna Gassman-Pines, co-author of the study and associate professor of public policy at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. “What’s worse is that the more hardship families experienced, the worse parents’ and children’s mental health.”

Not surprisingly, those who experienced two and three hardships reported more negative moods, worse sleep quality and more uncooperative child behavior than those who did not. For both parents and children, mental health was worst among those who suffered all four hardships.

“These results should raise concern, given the strong links between parental psychological well-being and the well-being of children,” the authors write.

Gassman-Pines and co-author Elizabeth Ananat of Barnard College suggest pediatricians should screen for mental health problems among children in their practices, with particular attention to children whose families are especially vulnerable to both the economic and health aspects of the crisis.

During the stressful pandemic, pediatricians should also help parents understand and watch for potential signs of mental distress, the authors write. Those may include uncooperative behavior and acting out.

The authors also urge the government to provide more support for families, through restarting expanded unemployment insurance benefits and increasing the generosity of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“What we really see here is that, as hardships pile up, the combined weight causes severe distress for families. Resilience only takes you so far, and the multiple dimensions of hardship caused by this pandemic — lost jobs, lost child care and education, sickness — are stretching families to the breaking point,” said Ananat. “Families need support, from their pediatricians and, hopefully, from the government.”

This research was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health (Grant #1R21HD100893-01), the National Science Foundation (Award # SES-1921190), the Russell Sage Foundation (Grant #1811-10382) and Washington Center for Equitable Growth.


CITATION: “COVID-19 and Parent-Child Psychological Well-Being,” Anna Gassman-Pines, Elizabeth Ananat and J. Fitz-Henley II. Pediatrics. 2020; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2020-007294