RSF Journal Contributors Discuss Their Findings on How the Changing Nature of Work and Families Impacts Low-Income Families

December 5, 2022

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Elizabeth O. Ananat, Sarah Halpern-Meekin, Pamela Joshi, Sigrid Luhr, Katherine M. Michelmore, Natasha V. Pilkauskas, Jennifer Randles, David E. Rangel, and Alejandra Ros Pilarz are contributors to RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences journal issue “Low-Income Families in the Twenty-First Century: Effective Public Policy Responses,” edited by Marcia J. Carlson (University of Wisconsin, Madison), Christopher Wimer (Columbia University), and Ron Haskins (Brookings Institution). The issue, co-published with the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, examines the growing needs of low-income families and explores both the extent to which public policy effectively serves them and how it can be improved. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Elizabeth O. Ananat is Mallya Professor of Women & Economics at Barnard College. She is co-author of the article “The Effects of the Emeryville Fair Workweek Ordinance on the Daily Lives of Low-Wage Workers and Their Families.” Ananat is a current RSF visiting scholar, a contributing author to RSF volume Whither Opportunity?, and a recipient of multiple RSF research grants.
Sarah Halpern-Meekin is associate professor in the School of Human Ecology and the La Follette School of Public Affairs at University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is co-author of the article “‘Disconnected’ Men: Understanding Men’s Joint Roles as Workers and Romantic Partners.” Halpern-Meekin is a contributor to RSF journal issue “Anti-poverty Policy Initiatives for the United States” and a recipient of multiple RSF research grants.
Pamela Joshi is senior scientist at Brandeis University. She is co-author of the article “Families’ Job Characteristics and Economic Self-Sufficiency: Differences by Income, Race-Ethnicity, and Nativity.”
Sigrid Luhr is visiting assistant professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is co-author of the article “Parenting Without Predictability: Precarious Schedules, Parental Strain, and Work-Life Conflict.
Katherine M. Michelmore is associate professor of public policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at University of Michigan. She is co-author of the article “The Earned Income Tax Credit, Family Complexity, and Children’s Living Arrangements.” Michelmore is a contributor to RSF journal issues “Wealth Inequality and Child Development: Implications for Policy and Practice” and “A Half Century of Change in the Lives of American Women” and a recipient of multiple RSF research grants.
Natasha V. Pilkauskas is associate professor of public policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at University of Michigan. She is co-author of the article “The Earned Income Tax Credit, Family Complexity, and Children’s Living Arrangements.” Pilkauskas is a contributor to RSF volume Children of the Great Recession and an RSF research grant recipient.
Jennifer Randles is professor and chair of sociology at California State University, Fresno. She is author of the article “Fixing a Leaky U.S. Social Safety Net: Diapers, Policy, and Low-Income Families.”
David E. Rangel is assistant professor of education at Brown University. He is co-author of the article “A Qualitative Examination of Work, Families, and Schools in Low-Income Latinx Communities During Strict Immigration Enforcement.”
Alejandra Ros Pilarz is assistant professor in the Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work at University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is co-author of the article “Making Sense of Childcare Instability Among Families with Low Incomes: (Un)desired and (Un)planned Reasons for Changing Childcare Arrangements.” Ros Pilarz is an RSF-Gates Pipeline Grant recipient.

Q. In order to save money, some low-wage employers will utilize precarious scheduling practices. What are some of these practices and how do they impact working mothers’ parenting?

Luhr: In an effort to reduce labor costs, employers use a variety of human resource strategies to closely match staffing with demand and this has made precarious scheduling practices increasingly common in the United States. Precarious scheduling practices can include things like giving workers little advanced notice of their work schedules, changing, canceling, or adding shifts at the last minute, and asking workers to work on-call. Precarious scheduling practices like these are especially common in the retail and food service industries, which often have large fluctuations in customer demand. And these practices allow for flexibility at least from the point of view of the employer – they allow managers to send workers home if stores are empty or call them in if stores are busy.

But they leave workers themselves with very little notice or control over their work hours. In fact, research shows that fewer than a third of service sector workers learn of their work schedules with two weeks’ advanced notice. There’s growing recognition that unpredictable work schedules can make life difficult for workers and particularly workers with young children. If you don’t know when you’re supposed to work, it can be really hard to plan for other aspects of your life. So, these schedules could make it harder for workers to do things like arrange childcare, go to school, or hold down a second job.

In this project, my co-authors, Danny Schneider and Kristen Harknett, and I are interested in the spillover effects that unpredictable schedules have on different aspects of family life. In the article “Parenting without Predictability: Precarious Schedules, Parental Strain, and Work-Life Conflict” we examine how precarious schedules affect mothers working in the low-wage service industry. We focus on how these schedules affect a few different aspects of parenting, including difficulty arranging childcare, missing work, work-life conflict, and parenting stress.

To study this, we draw on survey data collected from the Shift Project between 2017 and 2019. This survey sampled hourly workers employed at 129 of the largest retail and food service firms in the United States. This included places like Safeway, Whole Foods, CVS, Starbucks, Home Depot, and many other companies you’re probably familiar with.

Overall, we find that mothers in our sample experienced a great deal of schedule instability. Thirty-one percent reported a “variable schedule” that changed from day to day and another 17 percent reported a “rotating schedule.” Mothers also received little notice of their work schedules, with 17 percent receiving just 0-2 days’ notice. One in four mothers also reported working on-call and 66 percent reported changes like a later starting time or an earlier ending time in the last month.

So, how do these precarious schedules actually affect working mothers? Well, we find a lot of evidence that these scheduling practices can create problems. Mothers who get little advanced notice of their work schedules, who work on-call, and who have list-minute shift changes have more trouble arranging childcare, experience more work-life conflict, and are also more likely to miss work because of issues with childcare.

We also wanted to know how race and marital status might affect these patterns. When looking at marital status, we found that the association between schedule instability and work-life conflict was strongest for single mothers. And this does make some sense – we can imagine that single mothers might be the most affected by schedule instability because they lack partners who might be able to help with childcare duties. When looking at parenting stress, however, we find something a little bit different. We found that cohabiting mothers were the most negatively affected by schedule instability. For cohabiters, but less so for married or single mothers, parenting stress really rises with work schedule instability.

Finally, we considered whether these associations are moderated by race. When it came to parenting stress, we found significant moderation for Black mothers, who are more strongly affected than other racial groups. Now research finds that Black mothers may experience greater levels of parenting stress more broadly. And so, our research suggests that unpredictable work schedules could exacerbate these trends, heightening inequality across racial groups. This is especially concerning given that Black women are already overrepresented in the low-wage service industry where schedule instability is common.

To end on a slightly more positive note, we have seen recent changes that recognize the importance of scheduling. San Francisco, Seattle, Emeryville, New York, Chicago, and other cities have passed legislation that requires chain stores to provide two weeks’ advance notice of work schedules and access to more work hours. The findings I’ve presented here suggest that such changes could help working mothers, especially when it comes to reducing work-life conflict, missing work, and difficulty arranging childcare.

Q. The Emeryville, CA Fair Workweek Ordinance was enacted in 2017 in order to combat the negative effects of schedule unpredictability. What does the Ordinance require of employers? How has the ordinance impacted working parents’ schedules and worker and family well-being?

Ananat: The Emeryville ordinance requires employers to give workers two weeks' advance notice of their schedules. If an employer needs to change a schedule with less than two weeks’ notice, then that employer is required to pay the employee extra, sort of equivalent to overtime, for any hours that are added to the schedule as well as partially compensate employees for lost time. If hours are removed from the schedule, the employer is required to pay either for half of the time that the employee would have worked or for up to four hours, whichever is less.

This incentivizes employers to really make a good faith estimate of when the employee is going to work. It allows employers flexibility if circumstances change, but it makes sure that that that risk isn't all on the employee. If the employee needs to still make rent despite having a shift cut or needs to find someone childcare last minute and needs extra money in order to pay for that childcare because, now, they have time added to their shift, the employee has some flexibility to do that. So, it both reduces scheduling instability and makes the schedule instability that remains less harmful to workers.

Once the regulation went into effect, we saw regulated firms in Emeryville reduced a lot of these harmful, unstable scheduling practices. They reduced the number of canceled shifts, the number of surprise shifts, and the number of hours changes overall, such as requiring people to come in early or stay later than expected, which improved predictability for families. And we saw improvements in wellbeing in response to that. In particular, parents reported sleeping better, which is a key indicator of psychological health and wellbeing. When you're less anxious, about making rent or about who's going to watch your child it’s easier to take care of yourself.

Q. How is a “family budget” defined, and how is it measured? For full-time working families, how severe is the gap between what they make and what they need to cover basic needs? Are there racial/ethnic differences in families’ ability to cover basic needs through full-time work? Why do those inequities matter? What policy changes can be made to reduce the family budget gap?

Joshi: The definition of a family budget is the amount of income a family needs to purchase a basic set of goods and services in order to attain a decent standard of living. Those goods and services include everyday expenses like food, housing, healthcare, and childcare, as well as modern-day expenses like broadband and a basic cell phone plan. These budgets are adjusted for the number of adults and children in the family and where families live because cost of living varies by location.

There are several family budget measures available online publicly for download; for our research, we use the MIT living wage calculator. As an example, on average, a basic budget of $68,000 in 2019 would cover the cost-of-living expenses for a family of four, with two children and two adults who work full-time. The poverty line for a family of four is $26,000, so measuring basic family needs using a family budget rather than using the poverty line may seem like a big change. But really, family budgets actually have a rich and long policy history. Up until the 1980s, the Bureau of Labor Statistics published typical family budgets to estimate different living standards.

Using the current population survey, we found that, pre-COVID, 35% of families with children who work full-time year-round do not earn enough to cover a family budget. For low-income families working full time, the gap between earnings and basic needs is really quite large: more than 75% of low-income families working full-time do not earn enough to cover basic living expenses. This means that low-income families who don't meet this budget need to earn about an additional $23,500 or $11 more per hour on average, to cover basic needs with just their wages and no government assistance.

We also find that full-time work does not guarantee access to employer-provided benefits. 25% of full-time working families do not have access to employer-provided health insurance and 40% of low-income families working full-time do not have access to health insurance through their employers. The fact that full-time work does not pay enough to meet basic expenses has real consequences for children. When families can't meet their basic needs, children lose out on opportunities.

We find much greater financial hurdles for Black, Hispanic, and immigrant families working full-time and supporting their children. More than half of Black and Hispanic families working full-time do not earn enough to meet their basic needs compared to 25% of White families. More than 40% of immigrant families working full-time do not earn enough to cover their basic needs and 84% of Black and Hispanic low-income families cannot cover a basic budget compared to 70% of low-income White families. These budget gaps persist after controlling for education, occupation, and other family characteristics. So, these gaps really matter because they exacerbate racial and ethnic inequities in economic wellbeing and financial security that Black, Hispanic, and immigrant families face.

Our research documents the need for public investments that supplement wages and make up for the limitations in employer-provided benefits. Ways that policy can address these resources gaps include expanding tax credits and reducing the cost of basic expenses through subsidies and in-kind benefits. A key area of focus really needs to be bringing down the cost of childcare. Childcare is what allows parents to work. We also need a federal paid family medical leave policy so that families can take temporary leave away from their jobs after childbirth or attend to serious medical conditions. A key part of these policy changes needs to be to make sure that these benefits are equitably distributed. What this means is making eligibility for policies more inclusive for children in immigrant families, multigenerational families, and those with non-custodial parents, who are more likely to be Hispanic or Black. And we need to make participating in these programs more affordable. For example, paid family and medical leave programs should use progressive wage replacement rates to target higher wage replacement to working families with the lowest incomes.

Q. An increasing number of men are disconnected from the formal labor force and the inability to fulfil the traditional role of resource provider in romantic relationships has been attributed to declining marriage rates in the U.S. However, most of the disconnected men in your study do not believe their lack of formal employment harms their romantic prospects. How do these men make sense of their work status and their roles in romantic relationships and as resource providers?

Halpern-Meekin: In our study, we saw four types of perspectives among the men we interviewed. One group saw their disconnection from formal work as harming their romantic relationships or the possibility of having a romantic relationship. And that's consistent with what some previous researchers or commentators might expect - that they were not marriage material because of their disconnection from the labor force according to popular values. The other groups that we saw, however, were different.

Another group of men who we talked to saw the care work that they did for their families, like caring for an ailing parent or for a child with a disability, as necessarily and legitimately supplanting their formal work. They saw themselves as fulfilling obligations to their families through their care work. A third group of men who we talked to, didn't see their disconnection with formal work as really what determined how things went for their romantic relationships. They were more focused, for example, on managing their own health issues. And those sorts of things influenced different aspects of their lives. So, it wasn't that work drove their success or failure as romantic partners.

The last group was really interesting because this final group of men believed that contributing to their families was the right thing to do, and was important to their romantic relationships, but they didn't think that had to happen through their formal work. They described gathering resources for their families in a lot of different ways: bartering, working under the table, gardening, cooking and cleaning, hunting and fishing. Also doing work themselves, rather than hiring somebody else to do it for their family, like for car repairs, electric work, plumbing, or construction, for example.

What we were seeing in this study is that both the men in the second group of caregivers and this last group of people who are working outside the formal market had flexible notions about gender; more flexible than that traditional vision of men as an economic provider, which only consists of bringing home a paycheck. These men saw themselves as being able to contribute meaningfully to their families in multiple ways, even outside the formal labor force.

I think it is important to note that we don't know if we'd hear the same thing everywhere else. We were talking to a particular group of men who were in rural Wisconsin. And so it could be that the opportunities available in that setting look different than opportunities elsewhere. But we're certainly hearing questions raised in our research about that traditional economic provider role and men feeling some greater flexibility in how they can contribute to families and be good romantic partners and family contributors.

Q. It is often assumed that childcare instability negatively impacts low-income families, however, this is not always the case. How do planning and desirability of childcare changes impact whether childcare changes are detrimental or beneficial for a family?

Ros Pilarz: We know that families make childcare changes for many different reasons. Changes in their family themes and context, like job changes or housing moves as well as changes in children's developmental needs, can all lead them to seek out a new provider. For families with low incomes, childcare is typically unaffordable without financial assistance from either the childcare subsidy program, which helps pay the cost of care for low-income working parents, or from a public pre-kindergarten or Headstart program, which provides free early education for preschool-aged children. So, changes in the eligibility for these programs also matter for low-income families' access to care and the stability of care. Given these different reasons for childcare changes, we think that the underlying motivation for childcare changes might have implications for whether the change is supportive or detrimental to family wellbeing. For example, a change from a licensed childcare center to an unlicensed neighborhood caregiver because of an unexpected childcare subsidy loss is more likely to be detrimental to the family than a planned and desired change from grandparent care to a preschool program when the child is three years old.

In this study, we were interested in unpacking these different dimensions of the desirability and the planned nature of childcare changes. We wanted to better understand the family's experiences of childcare changes and the conditions under which these changes were experienced as positive for families or experienced as instability. To do this, we analyze data from interviews with 85 families with low incomes who are currently receiving or had recently received a childcare subsidy to pay for care. We found that most childcare changes that children experienced were described by their parents as both desired and planned. This means that parents wanted to make the change and also had time to plan for the change – typically a few weeks. These desired and planned changes typically lead to families’ finding a new childcare provider that was perceived as higher quality, a better fit, or more convenient for the family and was supportive of family wellbeing. Oftentimes, these changes were driven by parents' dissatisfaction with their current providers, which led them to seek out a new and more preferable provider. When parents had few alternative childcare options in their communities, however, desired and planned changes did not always lead to more satisfactory childcare arrangements. That's because there were no better alternatives in the communities even though parents were leaving a provider that was not a good fit.

When a childcare change was undesired, on the other hand, parents were happy with their current provider and didn't want to leave. Often, however, a change in their circumstances, like a job change, a job loss, a subsidy loss, or a housing move, made their current provider untenable and they felt forced to make a change. Undesired childcare changes typically lead to using a provider that was a worse fit – or at least not a better fit – for the family. When undesired childcare changes were planned, parents could still anticipate the change and make plans for a new provider. But childcare changes that were both undesired and unplanned were more disruptive for parents. They would either have to scramble to find new care or quit their jobs to care for their children themselves. These types of childcare changes are most likely to be experienced as instability. Undesired changes, especially unplanned changes, are typically driven by issues with the childcare subsidy program, like an unexpected subsidy loss or provider payment problems.

What does this all mean for helping families access high-quality and stable childcare arrangements? There are three key points to take away. First, the childcare subsidy program was a key driver of undesired changes. Minimizing administrative barriers when families sign up for the program and when eligibility is re-determined will help to reduce some unwanted changes. Increasing payment rates and reducing delayed payments for providers will also help reduce childcare changes driven by providers who discontinue their involvement in the subsidy program due to low or inconsistent payments. Second, we need to increase the supply of high-quality care. It's important for families to be able to find care that is high-quality and meets their family's needs. Many of the childcare changes that parents described could have been avoided if parents had better childcare options when they first started seeking out and using care. Additionally, consumer education needs to be improved. Childcare changes can be reduced if parents are aware of all of the childcare options in their communities. And finally, we can’t solve this problem from the childcare side alone. Given that parents' jobs are a key driver of childcare stability, we also need policies that improve parents’ working conditions and job stability in order to minimize unwanted childcare changes.

Q. What is family complexity and what are some examples of complex family structures? What percentage of low-income children live in households with complex family structures? How does family complexity impact families’ ability to claim benefits from government programs such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)?

Pilkauskas: Family complexity is essentially a catch-all term that we're using to refer to the increasing diversity in children's living arrangements. This includes arrangements like living with unmarried or cohabiting parents, step or blended families, or even multigenerational households. For the purposes of our paper, we think about complexity as it relates to claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit – whether the complexity of a family and how they live affects whether or not they can claim the credit. In particular, we were focused on children that were living with additional adult relatives in their household. That could be a multigenerational household, as well as households with children living with one or no birth parent living in the household with them. In particular, we focus on children in households with low incomes because these are the kids that are eligible for receiving the EITC.

The prevalence of family complexity and the percentage of low-income kids living in households that have complex family structures depends on the kind of family structure we’re talking about. If we’re thinking about children who live with additional adults in the households, in particular other relatives, about 13% of kids live in these households. Nearly 60% of children in lower-income households have at least one non-resident parent, meaning there is at least one parent that’s not living with the child. About two-thirds of those children are living with just a single parent. Other kids are living with their parent's new partner or with other relatives. When we look at this by race/ethnicity, we actually find really stark differences. Nearly 80% of Black children have at least one non-resident parent. In comparison, only about 38% of Asian children have at least one non-resident parent.

Michelmore: There are a few ways that complexity can affect the ability for families to claim the Earned Income Tax Credit. First, as Natasha pointed out, there is a large share of kids who aren’t living with both parents. This non-resident parent could potentially claim the child on their taxes, even if they’re not living with that parent. This could be because kids might be living with them part of the year – there might be an informal custody arrangement or a formal custody arrangement where kids are spending half of their time with one parent and half of the time with another. But the child only shows up as living with one parent in our survey data, so we can’t see that they’re moving between households. And this is something that’s in the tax code – if a child is spending literally half their time with one parent and half with other, both parents, in theory, are eligible to claim the credit. But, both parents cannot claim the credit.

Another way that this comes up is if a child is living with two birth parents, but those parents are not married to each other. Our tax code is based on marital status. If you are not formally married to someone, you cannot file taxes with that person. In those situations, only one of the parents can technically claim the child, even though both are eligible to claim the child. This is relatively rare – only about 6% of households have kids who are living with both of their birth parents, but they’re not married to each other.

Finally, in those 13% of households where kids are living with their parent and another relative, a situation could arise where that other relative could potentially claim the child on their taxes as well, if their adjusted gross income is higher than the parent's. There are a number of rules that lay this out in the tax code, but it’s rather confusing for families. There are lots of situations where it’s just ambiguous and there’s a lot of confusion over which parent or relative should claim the child. This is something that will affect kids beyond just the EITC. This is something that will arise in a lot of different tax credits, like the Child Tax Credit.

We propose two different policies that could enable the tax code to accommodate more complex family structures. One is establishing a federal non-custodial parent EITC. A number of states have, what we call, these non-custodial parent EITCs. In the states that have them, these policies are usually tied to the child support system. So, if a parent is up to date on their child support through the year, they’re eligible to claim this EITC, even though they’re not residing with the child. This is something we could establish at the federal level. We could design it in a similar way to the states and tie it to the child support system. But this would create some barriers for families that don’t have a formal child support order, which is much more common among low-income families. So, we could also think about establishing a non-custodial parent EITC that’s applicable to people even outside of the child support system.

Something else we discussed in the paper is making a more permanent expansion of what we call the childless EITC. There is an EITC available for individuals who are not claiming children on their tax returns. This was expanded as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, but only for the 2021 tax year. Historically, it’s been a very small credit – it’s only been about $500. But during 2021, we tripled the size of that credit. It’s important to keep in mind that while we call it a childless EITC, it basically covers anybody who doesn’t have a dependent to claim on their tax returns. It doesn’t necessarily mean that those people don’t, in fact, have children that they’re supporting. As we discussed before, it could be a non-custodial parent who is still providing financial transfers or in-kind benefits to their children; they are supporting their children in some way, but they’re not able to claim them as dependents. Expanding the childless EITC would be a way to support those individuals by providing them with a more generous credit.

Q. One in three mothers in the United States experiences diaper need – the lack of enough diapers to keep an infant dry, comfortable, and healthy. How does diaper need impact low-income parents’ caregiving? How do current policies fail to address diaper need and what are some policy responses that could help alleviate the challenges associated with diaper need?

Randles: Diapers are essential for family, parent, and child wellbeing. Parents without adequate access to diapers are at greater risk of anxiety and depression and sacrificing their own basic needs, including food and medicine, to pay for diapers. Most daycare centers on which working parents rely require disposable diapers. Children who lack diapers are more likely to experience developmental delays and health problems, such as diaper rash and urinary tract infections. Lacking basic needs during infancy and toddlerhood can create toxic deprivation and stress with lifelong physical, mental, and economic consequences. But despite diapers' central role in early childcare and wellbeing they have no official place in the US social safety net. There is no public assistance program for diapers and parents are explicitly prohibited from using food assistance benefits to buy them. Many families' cash assistance benefits are too low to cover the average $85 monthly diaper bill per child.

The last decade has seen several efforts to address diaper need, including private and public funding for hundreds of diaper banks across the country. These banks work like food banks by collecting in-kind and monetary donations, buying diapers in bulk, and distributing diapers to families. Diaper banks provide crucial support and services, but they can meet only a small fraction of the need. California currently offers $30 monthly diaper vouchers for some families who receive welfare cash aid, and some Washington families will be eligible for diaper vouchers starting in November 2023. Parents I interviewed shared that the cash value of vouchers can buy double or even triple what they could get at diaper giveaways, and when combined with couponing, store sales, and promotions, could often stretch to cover their children's monthly diaper needs.

Last year taught us a lot about another proven policy for addressing child poverty, including diaper deprivation. During the latter half of 2021, the Child Tax Credit program sent monthly payments of $250 to $300 per child to 36 million households with more than 61 million children, effectively cutting the child poverty rate in half. More than nine out of 10 families reported spending their credits on essentials including food, utilities, housing, education, clothing, and, yes, diapers. Unfortunately, these credits expired at the end of 2021. The federal government recently allocated $8 million to test innovative approaches to community diaper distribution, and along with many states' efforts to remove diaper taxes and devote more money to diaper banks, this pilot program is promising. But in the meantime, direct cash for diapers through vouchers or tax credits has many unique benefits, such as reducing the transportation and time cost of traveling to diaper distributions. Moreover, having more cash on hand allows parents to spend at their discretion and experience the sense of dignity that comes with meeting their children's diaper needs.

Q. How do federal and state-level immigration policies shape work and family life for low-income Latinx families?

Rangel: Federal and state-level immigration policies shape work and family life for low-income Latinx communities by limiting work opportunities and structuring families’ experiences inside and outside of the home. Our study drew on interviews with Mexican immigrant households living in San Antonio Texas and Phoenix, Arizona from 2011 to 2012. This was a time of great unrest in Mexican immigrant communities. Deportations were at record highs and Arizona had just passed Senate Bill 1070, widely considered one of the strictest anti-immigrant pieces of legislation in the country.

These policies impacted work by limiting access to it in two ways. First, federal and state policies criminalized it, making it a crime to work without proper work authorization documents. State immigration policies in Arizona, in particular, imposed penalties on employers for not stringently checking whether employees were authorized to work in the United States. Those who did find employment were in a precarious position. They had to support their families, but this also exposed them to greater deportation risks, which leads to the second way, federal and state immigration policies shaped work. The primary immigration enforcement tool at the time of the study was worksite immigration raids.

Fathers, who were more likely to work outside the home, were exposed to greater deportation risks and often bore the brunt of immigration policies focused on labor. However, the effects were experienced by families more broadly. Family life In Phoenix was structured by a local Sheriff’s department that was emboldened by federal partnerships that allowed them to enforce federal immigration laws and punitive state laws, under SB 1070 that sought to make day-to-day life more difficult for immigrant families.

We found in our data that federal and state immigration policies disrupted family life, especially in the context of schools. Children’s classmates vanished from one day to the next, causing fear and distress among those who remained. Fears and anxieties were especially predominant among children. As one father in our study put it, children were worried they would not see their fathers again. When children went to school, they were separated from their families and worried about their whereabouts. Fears of deportation extended to a distrust of schools and shaped parent-school relations in ways consequential for children, mostly by limiting parent involvement. This was seen prominently in Arizona laws that banned bilingual education and mandated instruction in English only, but also in schools across San Antonio and Phoenix that did a poor job of providing provide adequate language resources to parents despite being mandated by federal law to do so.

Weak family-school relations are consequential for two reasons. First, schools play a critical role in providing social support services for low-income and immigrant families, regardless of documentation status to families who might otherwise not receive them. Second, strong family-school relations are central to maximizing students’ potential. 

Given the ways federal and state immigration policies structured families' access to work, life inside the home, and social relations with schools, we argued that federal and state immigration policies served as de facto labor, family, and education policy in these communities.


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