Social Inequalities and Urban Family Life

News Type
SSA Magazine (Archive)

VOLUME 24 | ISSUE 3 | FALL 2017

Today’s cities often are touted as engines of innovation and prosperity. Robust urban economies offer high-paying jobs, fueling a comfortable standard of living for many families. Urban communities provide unparalleled opportunities for children to learn in wellresourced schools and to participate in rich extracurricular activities. Families also benefit from the diverse, multi-cultural institutions that animate city life. But cities can be sites of vast inequality.

happy baby on his mothers chest

 Many children and families experience a different urban reality: poverty, hunger, substandard housing, crime, and under-resourced schools and communities. While young professionals are drawn to cities for their career opportunities, many urban youth and longtime city dwellers confront limited job prospects and employment instability. Parents struggle to find jobs with steady hours and wages that adequately support their families. Against this backdrop, some children and families find ways to thrive, but too often against the odds.

happy baby on his mothers chest

SSA faculty members Julia Henly, Susan Lambert, Gina M. Samuels, Miwa Yasui, and Sydney L. Hans examine many of the complex challenges facing urban children, youth, and families, along with the social policies and programs designed to address them. This interdisciplinary group of researchers uses a range of theories, methods, and types of data in order to understand problems from multiple vantage points and levels. They consider consequences—both intended and unintended—of policies and interventions designed to serve children, youth, and families. Through their interdisciplinary scholarship and its application to real-world settings, these researchers aim to reduce and interrupt social inequalities to promote strong families, effective interventions, and a more just society for all. 


Work is central to the economic health and well-being of all families. Jobs provide the resources necessary to support and sustain the physical, social, and developmental needs of children. Yet the urban labor market proves inadequate for many families for whom joblessness, underemployment, and precarious work conditions are a way of life.

Research by Associate Professors Julia R. Henly and Susan Lambert shows the high prevalence of jobs—especially in retail, hospitality, and food service, where many low-income parents work—that are characterized not only by low and variable earnings, but also by erratic work hours and limited employee control over hours of work. Henly and Lambert’s research illuminates the many ways in which these precarious job conditions affect family life. For example, unpredictable work timing and limited schedule control are associated with increased levels of employee stress and work-family conflict that make it difficult to plan children’s activities, family meals, medical appointments, or social outings. Parents in precarious work conditions sometimes have difficulty meeting eligibility requirements for key public benefit programs such as child care assistance and unemployment insurance due to work hour requirements and scheduling complications that can interfere with enrollment and parental eligibility recertification processes.

Moreover, nonstandard and precarious work schedules make it difficult for parents to enroll their children in high quality early care and education programs. These programs are not only unaffordable for families with limited and unpredictable earnings, but they typically only are available during regular weekday hours that do not coincide with the care needs of parents working evenings, weekends, or irregular hours.

Additional studies by Henly reveal the extensive use of informal caregivers and multiple child care arrangements that parents patch together to accommodate unexpected and shifting work schedules. These arrangements can be especially burdensome for child care providers, many of whom are themselves struggling to manage their own employment and family responsibilities.

Lambert and Henly’s research has played an important role in establishing the research base fueling recent public discussion of these issues. For example, three major U.S. cities have local laws regulating fast-food restaurants’ responsibilities to their workers, including scheduling shifts at least two weeks in advance. Chicago and at least six states currently are considering similar bills. 

Teacher with students


Doulas can play an important role with young parents and their children, according to Sydney Hans’ research.


Social work interventions and public policies will be most effective when the research on which they are based reflects the values, experiences, and contexts of those they aim to help. This is especially true for research conducted with populations marginalized and stigmatized by racial, cultural, economic, and other forms of inequality. Sometimes, research that does not incorporate vulnerable families’ voices leads to well-meaning policies that actually make families’ lives harder. Research by SSA faculty taps into these complexities, illuminating the strategies of adaptation and resistance that children, youth, and families use to navigate the many challenges they face. 

Associate Professor Gina M. Samuels is collaborating with Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago on a national, multicomponent policy and research initiative to end youth homelessness and to help change the public’s perception and narrative about homeless youth. These youth have faced negative messages throughout their lives about their value and importance. In fact, over 50 percent of them report experiencing discrimination and stigma within their own families. 

Cities can be magnets for youth seeking a greater array of services and supports. But they are also places where youth are exposed to intense dangers as they struggle to find places to sleep. Many homeless youth will travel long distances to cities to access necessary services that are rarely located nearby. Only 19 percent remain in their cities of origin and 93 percent “couch surf”—with friends, extended family, and acquaintances—in an effort to stay off of the street. While returning home is an option for some, many homeless youth fled highly volatile or neglectful family contexts that present serious harm to their healthy development. Some simply cannot return. A staggering 35 percent of homeless youth experience the death of a parent before the age of 25. In Chicago and surrounding Cook County, it’s 45 percent.

Samuels’ work identifies critical tipping points in these youths’ stories in order to illuminate missed opportunities for intervention and prevention and to improve policies and practices. Her collaboration with Chapin Hall leverages that organization’s many connections to practitioners and policymakers, expanding the reach of Samuels’ research.

Like Samuels, Assistant Professor Miwa Yasui and Samuel Deutsch Professor Sydney L. Hans also study populations that must navigate stigmatized identities alongside economic disadvantage and its associated challenges. Their research sheds light on how diverse groups of parents cope with and counter messages from society that they are inadequate parents or should not be parents at all. Findings from their work are helping us understand how these parents’ strengths can be used to design services that help foster well-being, healthy development, and resilience for their children and themselves.

Yasui’s work takes on these questions in the context of developing effective mental health practices with Asian immigrant families in Chicago and its surrounding communities. The families she studies daily navigate stigma as racial minorities and as immigrants. As a result, they can be isolated from or resist using many institutions and services available within the city. While these families desire healing, there is a high degree of cultural stigma toward mental illness and counseling. This creates a cultural dilemma for families whose members have serious psychological needs, particularly when individuals in the same family do not see eye to eye on approaches for treatment. Yasui finds that clients and youth navigate this stigma by seeking out both Western and Eastern medical treatments and by creating new communities of social support: other immigrants with shared experience of being engaged both with counseling (Western culture) and with their families and communities of origin. Her scholarship is deeply shaped by her own evidence-based training and practice in clinical psychology, serving culturally diverse children and families in low-income urban and suburban contexts. This practice experience grounds Yasui’s commitment to developing effective and culturally anchored assessments and practice models for immigrant and racial-ethnic minority clients. 

Hans is working with teenage mothers in Chicago and smaller urban areas in Illinois. These young women experience powerful messages from important adults in their lives–teachers, health care providers, family members—that they are too young to be parents, that being a young parent will ruin their life chances, and that their family was a mistake. Hans’ research finds that although young mothers encounter many challenges in parenting, they also often report that becoming a mother has been a positive turning point in their lives. As parents, they have new motivation to succeed in school and work. They speak of accepting responsibility and of gaining a new purpose in their lives. They take pride in their children’s accomplishments. They find deep meaning in being the best mother they can be. Hans is working with community programs for teenage mothers, often staffed by former teenage mothers and doulas, who work to support young mothers during their transition to parenthood and to build their efficacy and pride in parenting.

Miwa Yasui with a group of people


Miwa Yasui speaks with survivors of Cambodia's Killing Fields at the Cambodian Association of Illinois' Museum.