Economic Instability and the Everyday Struggles of Families

By Richard Mertens

News Type
SSA Magazine (Archive)


Poverty isn't a static condition. New research is showing how unstable life is for many low-income families. For them, poverty is a roller coaster, marked by uncertain and irregular employment, erratic work schedules, fluctuating public benefits, shifting household composition, frequent housing moves, and other changes that undermine not only their precarious finances but also, evidence suggests, the health and well-being of their children.

The September 2017 issue of the Social Service Review focuses on the problem of economic instability, its consequences for low-income families, and its implications for public policy. The researchers shine a light on the everyday struggles of families as they try to feed themselves with SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits that run out before the end of the month and struggle to arrange child care that fits irregular and unpredictable work schedules. Finally, they take stock of ways in which public policy and the social safety net both alleviate and worsen instability, and how they might do better.

By devoting an entire issue to economic instability the SSR hopes to draw attention to an aspect of poverty that researchers say has been overlooked and under appreciated. “We think a lot about how people don’t have enough,” said Marybeth Mattingly, Director of Research on Vulnerable Families at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy and one of the issue’s guest editors. “We don’t know a lot about how that fluctuates over time.” 

In a study of 235 low- and medium-income households, Jonathan J. Morduch, Professor of Public Policy and Economics, at New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, and Julie Siwicki, now at the Aspen Institute’s Financial Security Program, report that almost all households with an annual income that lifted them above the federal poverty level—between 100 and 150 percent of it—fell back into poverty for at least one month of the year; a third of households earning twice the poverty level also experienced at least one month of poverty. Their article, “In and Out of Poverty: Episodic Poverty and Income Volatility in the U.S. Financial Diaries,” suggests that the main cause of this volatility is the variability of pay within jobs. More and more, researchers say, lowwage workers are subject not only to changeable work schedules but also to widely varying hours within each pay period.

One obstacle for researchers who want to study economic instability has been a paucity of data. Data on families often focus on yearly averages or on a single moment in time, both of which mask week-to-week and month-to-
month variability. Morduch and Siwicki use the U.S. Financial Diaries, an innovative survey in which researchers followed households for a year, to see how they managed their finances. The diaries offer a detailed look at monthly spending and earning patterns, as well as the formal and informal coping strategies that families use to smooth consumption and compensate for changes in income.

The most common strategy, Morduch and Siwicki say, is borrowing from relatives and friends. Families also make use of public benefits, especially SNAP, child care subsidies, and Social Security for disabilities, or seek help from non-profits.

The interplay between public benefits and economic instability is far from simple. Consider SNAP benefits. Research shows that they play an important role in reducing economic instability for low-income families. But because the monthly payments are insufficient to meet a family’s monthly needs, the program creates its own instability. In a study of 351 low-income families in North Carolina, Anika Schenck-Fontaine, a researcher at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy; Anna Gassman-Pines, associate professor at the Sanford School; and Zoelene Hill a post-doctoral researcher at NYU, found that as time passed families turned increasingly to their social networks for help. Their article, “Use of Informal Safety Nets during the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Benefits Cycle: How Poor Families Cope with Within-Month Economic Instability,” concludes that families were six times as likely to borrow money three weeks after receiving SNAP benefits as they were one week after. The overall level of what the authors call “food hardship” remained constant over the month but at a high level. This, they say, suggests that “SNAP benefit amounts may not be sufficient to lift families out of food hardship, even in combination with earned income and the use of informal supports.” 

Another important issue is the connection between economic instability, child care, and child care support. Child care allows parents to work, and yet irregular and non-standard work hours—hours outside the normal work and school day—have made arranging it increasingly problematic for low-income parents. In detailed interviews with 25 parents in the San Francisco Bay area, a team of researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, San Francisco, found that parents resorted to three main strategies.

Some two-parent families practiced “tag-team” child care, alternating a parent with regular daytime work hours and a parent with non-standard work hours. 

For other families, the instability of work was reflected in the instability of child care. Parents were forced to improvise, seeking help from family, neighbors, or friends. 

In contrast, some parents had a single “go-to” helper on whom they could rely.

Economic instability matters not only because it causes hardship for low-income families. It may hurt children by disrupting family routines and affecting parenting. One study has suggested that their test scores drop the longer it’s been since their families received their SNAP benefits. 

In an article “Economic Instability, Food Insecurity, and Child Health in the Wake of the Great Recession,” Sharon Wolf, Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, and Taryn Morrissey, Associate Professor in the School of Public Affairs of American University, suggest that economic instability also may harm children by undermining their health and food security.

A recurring theme in the special issue is that changes in the social safety net might help reduce economic instability. “If stability is a goal there is a way we could do our programs differently to support stability,” Mattingly says. For example, she says that administering SNAP benefits at shorter intervals than a month could help lessen the week-to-week instability that families now experience.

Researchers also suggest that administrative changes at agencies that disperse federal child care subsidies could make it easier for parents to access the subsidies and obtain quality child care.

The SSR’s special issue is an effort to shift the conversation about poverty toward its episodic nature. It also offers a foretaste of a subject we’re likely hear more of. Mattingly says economic instability is attracting growing interest among researchers, who are finding new ways to analyze and understand it.

“There are a lot of things happening that are on the cutting edge,” she said.


Morduch, Jonathan, and Siwicki, Julie, “In and Out of Poverty: Episodic Poverty and Income Volatility in the U.S. Financial Diaries,” Social Service Review 91: (3) 390-421.

Schenck-Fontaine, Anika; Gassman-Pines, Anna; and Hill, Zoelene, “Use of Informal Safety Nets during the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Benefit Cycle: How Poor Families Cope with Within-Month Economic Instability,” Social Service Review 91: (3) 456-487.

Wolf, Sharon, and Morrissey, Taryn, “Economic Instability, Food Insecurity, and Child Health in the Wake of the Great Recession,” Social Service Review 91: (3) 534-570.