Early childhood income instability, food insecurity, and adolescents' behavioral health

Liwei Zhang, Rei Shimizu, Yiwei Zhang, Cassandra Simmel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objective: This research examines the associations of early childhood income instability with subsequent behavioral outcomes in adolescence, paying attention to the mediating role of food insecurity. Background: Existing research has documented the rise in income instability in recent decades. Yet, few studies have addressed how income instability during early childhood may shape subsequent behavioral health outcomes in adolescence, beyond the effect of income levels. Furthermore, the mechanism underlying the longitudinal link remains unexplored. Method: Structural equation modeling (SEM) was conducted with the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study, a longitudinal data set following families with children in 20 large cities in the United States (N = 3,422). Results: Independent from average income levels, both incidence and frequency of negative income changes were significantly indirectly associated with higher levels of internalizing and externalizing behaviors in adolescence. Food insecurity operated as a mediator of the association. Conclusion: The results suggest cumulative associations between income instability and children's behavioral outcomes and the substantial role of food insecurity in linking the two. Implications: Policies and programs need to promote economic stability during early childhood and to ensure food security in nurturing children's short- and long-term well-being.

Original languageAmerican English
JournalFamily relations
StateAccepted/In press - 2022
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


  • early childhood
  • food insecurity
  • income instability
  • internalizing and externalizing behavior


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