Panel: Better Understanding Family Instability in America
(Family and Child Policy)

Friday, November 3, 2017: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Stetson G (Hyatt Regency Chicago)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Panel Organizers:  Lincoln H. Groves, University of Wisconsin - Madison
Panel Chairs:  Linda Mellgren, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
Discussants:  Heather Hill, University of Washington and Julie Kerksick, Community Advocates

Stabilizing Children’s Lives: Insights for Research and Action
Gina Adams, Mary Bogle, Julia Isaacs, Heather Sandstrom, Lisa Dubay, Julia Gelatt and Michael Katz, Urban Institute

Family Fluidity and Economic Resources
Lawrence Berger, Maria Cancian, Yiyu Chen and Daniel R. Meyer, University of Wisconsin - Madison

Exploring Cross-Domain Instability in Families with Children
Pamela Winston, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and Lincoln H. Groves, University of Wisconsin - Madison

From earnings volatility to changing household dynamics, children growing up in American families can experience high levels of instability across a multitude of domains.  A growing body of research finds that unpredictable environments during childhood can inhibit the healthy development of children and their long-term human capital accumulation.  Consequently, the promotion of stable environments for children is a critical concern for researchers and policymakers alike.

While instability has been identified as an issue in a number of different forms, it has usually been studied within a relatively narrow frame. A newfound emphasis on instability, however, explores a broader range of environmental factors affecting children, as well as the intensity of this instability over time.  By improving the measurement of different factors that affect child development, researchers can provide policymakers with better data and analysis, in turn enabling better policymaking to increase the stability in children’s lives and improve their well-being. 

In this panel, Better Understanding Family Instability in America, we explore a range of factors across domains of instability that affect children in U.S. households, moving from a broad to narrow focus.  In the first paper, “Stabilizing Children’s Lives: Insights for Research and Action,” Gina Adams will describe what is known about the nature and effect of instability in the lives of children, including why instability plays such a critical role in child development. She will also discuss the complex and intersecting nature of the instability problem, and challenges this poses for the formulation of research designs and policy solutions.  Finally, she will consider the need for development of better measures of instability, including more frequent and nuanced measures.

In “Exploring Cross-Domain Instability in Families with Children,” Pamela Winston outlines findings from work documenting the cross-domain nature and extent of adverse instability “shocks” to children growing up in American households.  Using longitudinal data from the 2008 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) to examine changes, this work quantifies the scope of shocks affecting children across the socioeconomic spectrum in six areas—employment, income, children’s health insurance status, residential moves, and family and household composition.  She also will discuss findings from an aggregated instability measure and how it varies by children’s socioeconomic status, as well as provide insight into how instability varies across race-ethnicity and geography.

The third paper, “Family Fluidity and Economic Resources,” delves much more deeply into one essential area of instability—household and family structure changes—and explore how the transient nature of modern families affects flows of economic resources. By using family roster information and monthly income data in the 2008 SIPP, Berger et al., create a much more nuanced understanding of fluidity in American households by documenting changes in the amounts and types of family economic resources (earnings and public benefits) that precede, are concurrent with, or follow changes in family composition and with what lag or lead period.

Finally, the panel will conclude with analysis and thoughts from Heather Hill and Julie Kerksick, who are experts on issues related to family instability in America.

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