Almost half of U.S. families with young children face high risk of poverty due to insecure employment, research shows

Personal finance

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Almost half of U.S. families with young children have faced a high risk of falling into poverty in the first six years of their children’s lives, according to new academic research.

What put those families at risk? Insecure or precarious parental work, according to a study from experts at New York University and Washington University.

Four indicators were used to measure whether parents were in less than ideal employment situations: work schedules, occupation, hourly wages and weekly work hours.

If those elements in parents’ employment were unstable, their children were more likely to experience poverty in their early years, the research found.

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That had lasting consequences for the children studied, who are now young adults. The data included about 10,000 children born in the U.S. in 2001, and followed them through 2007.

“The early childhood experiences of this young adult generation could have implications for their vulnerability to and resilience with today’s precarious job market,” the research published in the “Journal of Child and Family Studies” states.

The findings come as Congress is poised to consider a major social spending package that could have big benefits for families, with proposals including money for child care, a federal paid parental leave program and extended monthly child tax credit payments. It remains to be seen if that package, called Build Back Better, will get the necessary votes from Senate lawmakers.

The data focused on families during economic “golden years” before the Great Recession more than a decade ago, said New York University professor Wen-Jui Han, who co-authored the study, in an interview.

At that time, workers, particularly in those in service industries, faced pressures to work 24/7 as industries faced new demands to stay competitive amid growing globalization, which continues today.

Those working low-wage jobs may have to take two or three jobs and work 12 hours or 16 hours a day, Han said.

While that trend did reverse a bit during Covid-19, with more workers able to say no to jobs without benefits or low pay, there is the risk that that may not continue, Han said.

“We are losing the power on the workers’ side to negotiate the kind of wages, the kind of benefits, the kind of schedule we really should have to in order to really accommodate our family needs,” Han said.

Because children of these workers often live in areas where they cannot access a quality education, it is more difficult for them to break the cycle of poverty and eventually get good paying jobs themselves in adulthood, Han said.

The findings point to a need for policies to address these families’ struggles, according to Han, which can not only support children’s needs in their early years, but also position them for success later on.

Ideally, that would include guaranteeing stable employment for parents, so they are not at risk of being fired every time there is a recession, while also ensuring decent wages and benefits, as well as child-care services.

“Income support is really very effective to help our families go through that difficult time where they really need financial support the most,” Han said.

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