This Labor Day, Let’s Remember Those Who Can’t Afford a Day Off

In a recent New York Times article, reporter Jodi Kantor describes the challenging lifestyle of Jannette Navarro, a 22-year-old single mother who is a Starbucks barista with an erratic work schedule. The article chronicles Jannette’s seemingly impossible balancing act of seeking childcare, pursuing an education, and providing for her family.

The workplace stress and uncertainty that Jannette faces day-to-day is also felt by low-income working families across the US. Fluctuating work hours and limited resources make the daily demands of family life and trying to get ahead in the economy a constant challenge, creating anxiety as families simply struggle to stay afloat.

Through its research, Children’s HealthWatch, a national nonpartisan network of pediatricians and public health researchers, has documented that job security isn’t just an economic and lifestyle issue – it affects our physical health as well.  In our brief published today – Steadying the Foundation: Maternal Job Stability, Safety Net Programs & Young Children’s Health – we describe how job instability (defined as maternal job loss or reduced work hours) increases the risk of poor health for mothers and their young children.

In urban hospitals across the country, we interviewed more than 14,000 low-income working mothers with children under age four.  We found that 38 percent of these women had experienced job instability in the past year. Compared to stably-employed mothers and their children, mothers with job instability were more likely to have poor mental and physical health, and their children were significantly more likely to be in poor health and have developmental delays. Our research also found that job instability is linked to higher levels of material hardships such as housing insecurity (living in overcrowded conditions or moving frequently) and family food insecurity (when families lack sufficient food for all members to lead active, healthy lives).

While financial loss due to job instability can end up harming the health and development of young children, our research suggests two of the largest federal safety net programs – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Unemployment Insurance – can blunt the impact. The rate of child food insecurity – a severe level of food insecurity where children have to skip meals or go without eating for an entire day – was significantly lower for children whose mothers experienced job instability but also received SNAP, than it was for the children who did not receive SNAP.  In other words, SNAP helped to buffer children from the worst effects of job instability.

Unemployment insurance (UI) had a similar positive effect, stabilizing the housing of children whose mothers had lost a job. Families experiencing job loss who received UI were 27 percent less likely to be housing insecure than those families that did not receive UI.

Of course, no one wants to have to rely on public assistance as they juggle the demands of raising a family and inconsistent work hours or job loss. As Tianna Gaines-Turner, a member of Witnesses to Hunger in Philadelphia, puts it, “No one wakes up in the morning saying, ‘I think I want to lose my job today and go apply for government assistance and wait weeks for my unemployment to go through.’ No one wants that. But food stamps and other government assistance programs are important to help families who, through no fault of their own, end up unemployed and need a little extra help.”  She and her husband both work to support their three children but have struggled to escape poverty.

In response to the New York Times article, Starbucks has announced it would change the way it schedules its baristas in order to improve “stability and consistency.” Shifting towards a more manageable and family-friendly work environment is a good first step. However, there are other actions that policymakers should take to promote job stability and improve the health and self-sufficiency of low-income families.

First, increase the minimum wage to at least $10.10 an hour, and index it to inflation to ensure its value does not erode in the future; also expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit to provide a critical boost to low-wage working families’ incomes. Second, ensure that the SNAP benefit is calculated based on the real cost of a healthy diet to help eligible families put more healthful food on the table.  Right now, it’s based on a plan that doesn’t match the costs of living for today’s working families. Third, permit “good cause” as a qualified reason for leaving a job under UI regulations.  Currently, many workers are ineligible for UI even if they have an unavoidable and justifiable cause for resigning, such as health problems or child care issues.  Lastly, strengthen the Family Medical Leave Act so that qualified workers receive up to 12 weeks of paid leave each year for the birth or adoption of a new child, serious illness of a family member, or a worker’s own medical condition.

This Labor Day, we should recognize the kinds of workplace practices and policies that allow families to lead healthy, productive lives with stability for their children.  The solutions are within reach – employers and policymakers can strengthen economic security for all working families.

Read more here.

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