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Being Poor Despite Having a Job: Family Transitions Matter

In a recent paper, researchers Zachary Van Winkle and Emanuela Struffolino addressed the issue of in-work poverty – an alarming phenomenon which is exceptionally common in the United States. They considered life courses of individuals from age 18-50 who were born between 1957 and 1964 in the United States, and particularly focused on the association between family demographic processes and the probability of belonging to the working poor.

The empirical results situate the risk of in-work poverty across individual life courses as a function of critical transitions related to leaving the parental home (one of the crucial markers of the transition to adulthood), union formation and dissolution, as well as parenthood. In this context, they found that the effects of specific events do depend on the age at which they occur. The researchers found that for both men and women, leaving the parental home at a young age is associated with an approximately 30 percentage point higher probability of belonging to the working poor between age 18 and 28.

In contrast, being married protects individuals from in-work poverty at every stage of the life course, especially for women. Then again, separation is associated with a progressively higher in-work poverty risk but only for women and until ages 32-36. The in-work poverty risk slightly decreases later on, but remains substantially higher compared to men at any age.

Having one child triggers a more significant probability of belonging to the working poor for both men and women primarily in their early life-course, and especially so before age 30 for men and age 36 for women. In contrast, the probability of in-work poverty associated with the presence of two or more children is much more persistent across time.

Essentially, their results indicate that individuals who did not rely on welfare support as principal source of household income, but rather succeeded in accessing the labor market were exposed to poverty just because they experienced a family demographic transition. The age-specific effects of family demographic processes were found to be considerably larger compared to the average effects of traditional stratification factors reported in literature - for example for education.

This should be of great interest for policies that aim at improving possibilities to start a family, independent of economic conditions.

Author(s) of the original publication: 
Isabel Robles Salgado