Finding a Way: How Income Instability Affects Low-Income Families

New video explores issues and policy solutions based on recent research by the Family Self-Sufficiency and Stability Research Consortium
Feb 27, 2018

Income InstabilityIn today’s economy, low-income families working in sectors such as retail or food services often face frequent fluctuations in income across weeks, months, and years because of the part-time nature of these jobs. Income instability is defined as repeated changes in income that are unpredictable or unintentional and that do not lead to improved economic circumstances.

To supplement their wages, these families often participate in a system of means-tested income support programs, but these programs are not designed and administered in a way that fully acknowledges families’ economic realities. In particular, these programs are not designed to reduce income instability. Program rules and requirements, each with its own interpretation about how and when income is counted, might in fact exacerbate income fluctuations caused by work and family changes, putting families at risk of not paying bills for housing, food, utilities, and other necessities. As policymakers and program administrators continue to grapple with ways to promote income stability and mobility with income support programs, a new Mathematica Policy Research-produced video can inform that discussion.

The video presents program beneficiaries describing their experiences with income instability and income support programs alongside scholarly commentary from Marybeth Mattingly, director of research on vulnerable families at the Carsey School of Public Policy in the University of New Hampshire. The video is based on a recent brief by Jennifer Romich and Heather D. Hill— associate professors at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work and the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance, respectively—and explains how income instability affects families' everyday lives. It highlights opportunities for policymakers and program administrators to promote greater income stability and mobility through income support programs. In particular, the brief and video propose that policymakers and program administrators consider changes to eligibility determination and recerti­fication procedures to promote stable income and reduce the cost of program administration. Hill, Mattingly, and Romich are members of the Family Self-Sufficiency and Stability Scholars Network, which is part of the Family Self-Sufficiency and Stability Research Consortium.

The Family Self-Sufficiency and Stability Research Consortium is funded by the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation in the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The contents of the video and associated brief are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Mathematica is partnering with more than a dozen human service agencies across the country to embed evaluation and learning into decisions about policy and practice through Project AWESOME: Advancing Welfare and Family Self-Sufficiency Research, which is part of the Family Self-Sufficiency and Stability Research Consortium.

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