Objectives. In cases of child neglect, intervention depends on accurate identification and reporting. Prior work has shown that individuals, especially those of high socioeconomic status (SES), conflate poverty and neglect when making identification and reporting decisions. The COVID-19 pandemic led to changes in people’s experiences with poverty, likely influencing their ability to distinguish poverty in families and neglectful parenting.

Hypotheses: Two studies tested the impact of COVID-19 on laypersons’ perceptions of neglect, likelihood of reporting neglect, and attributions of blame for neglect. We hypothesized that laypersons would conflate poverty with neglect, that COVID-19 would be associated with a decreased likelihood of doing so, and that attributions of blame would mediate the latter tendency.

Method: Adults read vignettes about a mother’s care of her daughter and responded to questions about the mother’s neglectfulness and their reporting likelihood. Study 1 (N = 676, Mage = 38.80, 48.08% women) compared responses collected before COVID-19 (August 2018) to responses from a separate set of adults collected during COVID-19 (November–December 2020). Study 2 (N = 704, Mage = 43.88, 63.49% women) manipulated mention of COVID-19 to assess whether cuing the pandemic affected identification and reporting, and measured attributions of blame to assess whether they explained the relation between COVID-19 and perceptions of neglect.

Results: Whereas most laypersons distinguished situations with versus without neglect, some conflated poverty with neglect when making identification and reporting decisions. However, COVID-19 did not have a direct impact on identification or reporting decisions. Attributions of blame partially explained laypersons’ perceptions of situations as neglectful and as warranting reporting. Laypersons’ current SES and perceptions of COVID-19 in 2020 were positively associated with identification and reporting.

Conclusions: Laypersons in part mistake poverty for neglect, and COVID-19 had indirect effects on perceptions of neglect and reporting decisions. Public education efforts may help improve identification of vulnerable children by laypersons.


The accepted version of this paper in the University of Edinburgh Repository is not the copy of record and may not exactly replicate the authoritative document published in the APA journal. Please do not copy or cite without author's permission. The final article is available, upon publication, at: https://doi.org/10.1037/lhb0000491.

Cite as

Metcalf, S., Dickerson, K., Lavoie, J. & Quas, J. 2022, The COVID-19 pandemic and lay perceptions of poverty and neglect, Law and Human Behavior, 46(4), pp. 245-263. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1037/lhb0000491

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Last updated: 05 August 2022
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