The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

When Life Isn't Stable

There is no one picture of poverty. To have an annual income of, say, $22,000 for a family of three, a parent can hold a low-paying job steadily for a year. That same total, though, could be the result of a life-changing shock, like a divorce, or of a three-month period of unemployment after a job loss. Or it could be because a working parent holds a handful of part-time jobs scattered throughout the year. “Most surveys and studies would treat these different patterns as the same experience for families and children,” says SSA Assistant Professor Heather D. Hill. “But we know from prior studies that income can fluctuate a lot within a given year, particularly for low-income families. The question is whether those fluctuations have implications beyond the consequences of having low income.”

Hill’s research has included the impact of parental employment instability, but she now is working on a less-studied topic: How does income instability affect the well-being of children in the family? The first step was a paper that framed the conceptual framework in Child Development Perspectives, written in conjunction with Pamela Morris, a professor of applied psychology at New York University, and Lisa Gennetian, an economist with the National Bureau of Economic Research. The team is now working on several empirical papers using a nationally representative survey of income and program participation.

Although the work is ongoing, preliminary results show that income instability has increased since the 1970s, and that such instability is more than twice as common in low-income families than for wealthy ones. Greater family income instability for low-income families is associated with higher likelihood that adolescents will be suspended or expelled from school and lower likelihood that they will report being engaged with being in high school.

On November 15, 2013, EINet is hosting a research forum on Employment Instability and the Safety Net at the Gleacher Center in downtown Chicago to look at the capacity of safety net programs to protect families from employment instability and examine research on the issue. With speakers from a wide variety of institutions and academic disciplines, the event will be an opportunity to discuss the topics from the EINet cross-disciplinary perspective. “The safety net has long focused on providing for basic needs and encouraging employment,” Hill says. “But whether it helps buffer low-income families against the instability of low-wage work is not well understood. This conference is a step toward learning more about how employment instability affects participation in TANF, the EITC and other safety net programs.”

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