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When Working Isn’t Enough

In the United States today, 6 percent of individuals in employment ­­– around 10 million people ­­– are at risk of becoming part of the working poor: living in households under the poverty line despite being employed. Leaving home, becoming a parent, or going through a divorce can dramatically increase this exceptionally high figure. Zachary van Winkle and Emanuela Struffolino (WZB and Humboldt-Universität) are the first to study how such family demographic transitions can push people into at-work poverty and breed social exclusion.

Using data from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, the researchers have looked at the age-specific effects of critical transitions in family life. These factors are largely understudied, with the existing literature focusing instead on traditional stratification lines such as education. Yet as van Winkle and Struffolino’s study shows, family demographic changes can act as an even more powerful penalty − especially for adults aged 18-22 − significantly increasing individuals’ risk of being among the working poor. Indeed, the members of the 1957-64 group analyzed were exposed to a higher poverty risk in correspondence with specific transitions across the family life-course, be it leaving the parental home, a marriage ending, or the birth of a child.

Women face particular disadvantage: While marriage offers significant protection against in-work poverty, separation proves especially detrimental for women. In the context of rapidly growing inequality in the United States, where in-work poverty is already considerably higher than in most of Europe, this research highlights the make-or-break role of family demographic transitions to individual life-courses. Sensitivity to this issue, the researchers conclude, should therefore form the backbone of policy on household and family formation, already the subject of much public and political debate.

Zachary van Winkle and Emanuela Struffolino: “When Working Isn’t Enough: Family Demographic Processes and In-work Poverty across the Life Course in the United States.” In: Demographic Research, September 2018, vol. 39, 365-80.