New research examines how many low-wage workers struggle to get benefits

News Type
Crown Family School News

Even before the Christmas trees go up for sale on the corner lots, signs are posted on shop windows enticing people to join bustling retail staffs.

These retail jobs--as well as other kinds of work related activities--are bread and butter for low skilled workers who are seeking assistance from public benefits programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps), and the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP), according to work by the Employment Instability, Family Well-Being, and Social Policy Network (EINet) at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration.   

But a study of 21 retail stores in Chicago showed that workers at one firm, for example, averaged only 12.75 hours per week, said Susan Lambert, associate professor at SSA and co-principal investigator for EINet.

“Regardless of the growing precariousness of employment, the United States is making eligibility for many social programs—unemployment insurance, food stamps, child care subsidies and housing vouchers—contingent on the number of hours worked,” said Lambert and SSA associate professor Julia Henly, an EINet core faculty member, write in “Double Jeopardy,” a chapter in the 2013 book, Work and the Welfare State co-edited by SSA associate professor Evelyn Brodkin. Easing the work hour requirement would make it easier for employees to access much needed safety net programs, they said.

The work of EINet

EINet is an interdisciplinary project involving more than 100 scholars, and policy professionals around the country.  EINet is intended to improve academic and public understanding of employment instability, to design effective interventions and further knowledge on policies that help the unemployed and underemployed.

The network also operates a competitive small grants program to support innovative research.

EINet recently held a conference, “Employment Instability and the Safety Net,” at the University of Chicago Gleacher Center.  At the conference experts looked at how safety net programs interact with employment instability, for example, how responsive they are to job changes and hour fluctuations.  

“These experts joined attendees in a lively discussion of the ways in which government policy should promote employment quality and stability directly, and offer assistance designed to reduce the effects of instability,” said conference co-organizer SSA assistant professor Heather Hill, EINet co-principal investigator.   “Keynote speakers, Luke Shaefer from the University of Michigan and Kathryn Edin from Harvard, provided a grim picture of increasing numbers of families living in extreme poverty, often as a result of job loss or unstable work hours.”  

Shaefer, SSA PhD ’08, has done research with conference co-organizer SSA assistant professor Marci Ybarra.  Ybarra is also an EINet core faculty member.

In the article “The Welfare Reforms of the 1990s and the Stratification of Material Well-being among Low-income Households with Children,” (Children and Youth Services Review), they said that among deeply poor households with children, 48 percent reported in 2005 they did not have enough money to cover most essential expenses, compared to 37 percent in 1995.

Employee benefits can also help workers balance responsibility at home and on the job, and reduce employment instability. For instance, SSA assistant professor Heather Hill, finds in the paper “Paid Sick Leave and Job Stability” (Work and Occupations) that being offered paid sick leave in a job reduces job turnover by 25 to 50 percent. Mothers in particular are less likely to leave a job when they have sick leave, which benefits them and their employers.