Background: Research shows that many lower-paid families whose incomes technically exceed the poverty line experience significant material hardship, with negative outcomes for parent and child well-being. To cope, many low-paid parents use “income packaging,” that is, combining public benefits and wages. Most available research into this phenomenon focuses on workers with low-quality, precarious jobs. The current study adds to the literature by comparing parents’ experiences of better versus worse labor precarity across their lifetimes to understand the complex relationships among income, job quality, and family outcomes. For social workers engaged in labor and economic justice work, this research enhances understandings of the connections between labor conditions, social welfare benefits, and family well-being.
Methods: The data are drawn from qualitative research with 25 parents of young children who received the Earned Income Tax Credit in 2019, had used at least one other public benefit during their parenthood, and had earned at least one raise in the three years preceding the interview. All parents participated in two interviews using semi-structured life history calendar and in-depth interviewing methods. Participants were predominantly Black single mothers and earned an average of $25,000 annually. Thematic coding and within- and cross-case analysis were used to understand differences in parents’ experiences.
Findings: Job quality and the balance of life stressors versus resources affected both their family well-being and labor attachment. Among periods in parents’ lives when they had low quality, precarious jobs, experienced workplace discrimination, and/or parental or child health problems, they struggled to maintain labor attachment and used more public benefits. In contrast, parents reported better job quality and lower overall stressors to support labor attachment. Nearly all parents who were able to access a higher quality job (e.g., consistent schedule, benefits) reported experiencing a related public benefits reduction despite still experiencing a range of material hardships. Additionally, parents noted that the public benefits system is outdated, lacking any supports for water bills, internet bills, or technology. Similarly, parents reported that when changing jobs, the public benefits system was too inefficient to quickly and accurately adjust supports based on changes in wages and hours, resulting in lapses in benefits and having to pay back benefits they should not have received. Thus, though higher job quality seemed protective against the worst material hardships, most parents reported requiring more financial and in-kind resources without which they reported serious hardships like food and housing insecurity.
Implications: This research applies a person-in-environment approach to shed light on the complex interactions among paid work, public benefits, and family well-being. Parents illustrated how despite their strong labor attachment, they endure material hardship and the high cognitive load of navigating a fragmented, antiquated public benefits system while struggling to save or reach financial stability. This suggests that social workers consider parents’ labor conditions when working with families to support their well-being. This research has policy implications for social workers pursuing labor and economic justice, including expanding and updating the social welfare system and improving implementation to adequately support low-income parents.