Panel Paper: Cross-Domain Instability in Families with Some College Education: Considerations for Supporting Opportunity and Security

Thursday, November 7, 2019
I.M Pei Tower: Majestic Level, Majestic Ballroom (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Pamela Winston1, Lincoln Groves1 and Linda Mellgren2, (1)U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, (2)Retired

American children experience substantial instability across key domains of family life, including who they live with, where they live, and how much money is available to the household. Studies in a range of disciplines indicate that high levels of instability exist for many families and that this uncertainty can have negative effects on child development and adult wellbeing. Researchers generally recognize the complexity and interconnections among dimensions of family instability. However, most empirical research addresses only one or two dimensions of instability, such as income volatility or changes in family composition. This silo'ed approach may insufficiently recognize the cumulative nature of family instability as a whole and understate its prevalence for many children and the households in which they live. This study seeks to address this limitation, documenting the nature and extent of cross-domain instability among a representative sample of U.S. children and households by socio-economic status (SES), and exploring policy and practice implications of its findings.

The proposed paper builds on prior research (Winston, Groves, and Mellgren 2017) that documented the incidents of instability for children across interconnected dimensions (alone and cumulatively), using household education as a proxy for SES. It found disproportionately high levels of instability for children in families with “Some College.” The analysis in this paper looks more closely at the three types of households within the Some College group—those with associate’s degrees (AA); those with credentials from vocational, technical, trade, or business schools (VTTB); and those in which an adult entered college but did not finish with a credential (Some College/No Degree). It examines the differing degrees of instability that families in each subgroup experience, focusing on Some College families because they experience relatively high levels of instability at the same time they are often overlooked by social policy.

The study asks:

  1. How are instability shocks distributed by domain among children and their households by household education level?
  2. What does an index of cumulative instability—adapted from the Adverse Childhood Experiences study—indicate about the extent of cross-domain instability for these children and households?
  3. What are implications for policy and practice that aims to expand family opportunity and stability?

It uses the 2008-2013 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), which provides up to 64 months of data for more than 14,000 children over five years. Measures include employment, income/earnings, children’s health-care coverage, residential moves, and family and household composition.

The analysis uses descriptive methods to document individual and cumulative incidents of negative and substantial change for children across domains. It cannot untangle the causal relationships among multiple instability incidents, nor the ultimate effects on family wellbeing. Rather it provides a snapshot of the proportion of children experiencing instability of different types, the average number of shocks they experience, and the prevalence of cumulative instability. Finally, it uses semi-structured discussions with federal and other policy analysts to explore the implications of the findings, with a particular focus on ways to better support greater opportunity and security for these families.