Request for Articles - Low-Income Families in the 21st Century: Effective Public Policy Responses to Complexity and Change

Low-Income Families in the 21st Century: Effective Public Policy Responses to Complexity and Change

Marcy Carlson (University of Wisconsin-Madison),
Christopher Wimer (Columbia University),
and Ron Haskins (Brookings Institution)

The 21st century has seen major changes in both the nature of work and the nature of families in the United States, some building on trends over the past half century and some representing breaks from the past. Many observers hypothesize that U.S public policies have failed to keep up with these changes—or have done so unevenly across localities, with particular consequences for low-income individuals and families. We seek paper proposals that provide research evidence on the changes in work and families, and the most promising policy options to meet contemporary needs. As such, the volume will inform efforts to develop, reform and implement public policies and programs that effectively support low-income workers and their families.

Low-income workers today face a very different labor market than they did fifty years ago. The job opportunities for those with low skills have diminished amidst a rising premium for high skills (Autor 2014), and real wages have stagnated and labor force participation has declined for those with low education (Groshen and Holzer 2019). Stable jobs with decent pay and good benefits are more scarce (Dutta-Gupta et al. 2018; Hill 2013). Work schedules are more variable, and work is more likely to occur during nonstandard hours (Presser 2003; Lozano et al. 2016; Craig and Powell 2012; Golden 2015), and unstable work schedules are linked with adverse health outcomes (Schneider and Harknett 2019). There are less clear and structured—and more divergent—career progression paths predicting economic mobility (Bernhardt et al. 2001). Unions, which have historically bolstered workers’ wages and benefits, cover significantly fewer workers today than in the past (Western and Rosenfeld 2011). So-called ‘gig work’ is increasingly an income source for many, which may create desired flexibility for high-skilled workers but may leave low-skilled workers without stable and well-remunerated work (Spreitzer et al. 2017). In short, today’s low-income jobs may be more likely to have various “bad” characteristics than low-wage jobs of the past (Kalleberg 2011). Perhaps as a result, traditional career ladders into the middle-class have become less common (Rolfe 2017).

At the same time (and perhaps partly in response), families have changed rapidly, becoming more unstable and complex. This is especially true among low-income families. Marriage rates have steadily declined, and they have declined the most among more disadvantaged families (Parker and Stepler 2017). Cohabitation has risen steadily (Hemez and Manning 2017). Many births now occur outside marriage, and many unions among low-income parents will dissolve over the course of childhood (McLanahan 2011). As parents re-partner, multipartner fertility has increased, especially among low-income families, and many low-income children now experience multiple family arrangements, including co-residence with stepparents and so-called “social parents” (Furstenberg 2014). Compounding these patterns are trends in mass incarceration, which have removed many fathers from their families and communities (Wakefield and Uggen 2010). In addition, the opioid crisis has left many parents ill-equipped to care for themselves or their children (Romanowicz et al. 2019). As a result, an increasing number of children are living with extended family members and grandparents, both out of financial necessity and as family stability has decreased (Pilkauskas and Cross 2018; Pittman 2015). Families may play an important role in buffering the negative consequences of economic insecurity (Wiemers 2014), but when families themselves are unstable, their buffering role is threatened.

The combination of these forces means that low-income and working class families today face dramatically different circumstances than their counterparts a half century ago (Cherlin 2014). At the same time, social policies and programs—many of which were enacted during the mid-20th century and designed around the assumption of nuclear families—have evolved slowly or unevenly across locations. They are often based on outdated assumptions about families, work and the causes of poverty, and federal policies do little to help individuals balance work and family demands (Boushey 2016). Overall, low-income families face more uncertainty today and bear a greater share of the risk than government and business (Hacker 2008; Murdoch and Schneider 2017).

Outdated social policies are numerous: Unemployment Insurance ignores the fact that many low-income workers patch together employment from multiple jobs and informal work arrangements over time. Temporary Assistance to Needy Families programs demand work and work readiness without regard for employer hiring demands or the barriers to work faced by many low-income families. The Earned Income Tax Credit essentially provides an annual wage subsidy for the working poor but is not responsive to the volatility in earnings and living arrangements that are common for low-income families. These are but a few examples, and it is time for a reexamination of social policies that could better support work and family life in the 21st century.

In this volume, we aim to consider aspects of work and family life for those in poverty or near poverty—and their intersection, highlighting the extent to which public policy is effectively serving low-income families and ways that it might be improved. The co-editors envision that papers will address a range of topics related to contemporary work arrangements (including paid and unpaid care work), family configurations, and public policy supports. Papers may focus on any particular aspect of work, of family, or both—but should explicitly address policy implications and needs, providing evidence about exemplar strategies and programs. We strongly encourage papers that directly focus on ways that policies are—or are not—meeting the needs of low-income workers and families. We envision papers from many disciplinary perspectives and methodological approaches, and we expect that particular subgroups of interest (e.g., by race/ethnicity, immigration status) will be relevant. Examples of specific topics to be addressed include the following:

Work and Policy in the 21st Century:

  1. Unstable/changing work schedules in the low-wage labor market and associated challenges of unstable income and unstable time with families
  2. The ‘gig’ economy and how it is leveraged by parents to make ends meet (and may increase economic instability)
  3. How incarceration (of fathers or mothers) affects employment prospects and family relationships
  4. Low-income families that slip through the cracks of work and public policy (unhoused or hard-to-house families, and very poor families)

Family Change and Policy in the 21st Century:

  1. The role of grandparents in rearing children (e.g., due to the opioid epidemic) and their eligibility for and access to limited policy supports
  2. Availability and coordination of child care arrangements amidst changing work and family configurations
  3. Shared custody and children living across households amidst policies that define custodial vs. non-custodial parents
  4. How non-custodial parents earn a living and manage involvement with their children
  5. Family geographic mobility and unstable housing amidst unstable work opportunities
  6. The mismatch between family complexity (including multi-partnered fertility) and policies based on a nuclear family model (including roles/rights of non-biological parents regarding children, e.g. access to schools or health care)
  7. How single-earner families raise children with limited money and time
  8. High numbers of children in the child welfare system amidst the opioid crisis
  9. Challenges arising due to public policy shifts affecting immigrant families, including when parents and children have different immigration statuses, etc.

Anticipated Timeline

Prospective contributors should submit a CV and an abstract (up to two pages in length, single or double spaced) of their study along with up to two pages of supporting material (e.g., tables, figures, pictures, etc.) no later than 5 PM EST on January 7, 2020 to:

NOTE that if you wish to submit an abstract and do not yet have an account with us, it can take up to 48 hours to get credentials, so please start your application at least two days before the deadline. All submissions must be original work that has not been previously published in part or in full. Only abstracts submitted to will be considered. Each paper will receive a $1,000 honorarium when the issue is published. All questions regarding this issue should be directed to Suzanne Nichols, Director of Publications, at and not to the email addresses of the editors of the issue.

A conference will take place at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York City on June 23, 2020 (with a group dinner the night before). The selected contributors will gather for a one-day workshop to present draft papers (due a month prior to the conference on 5/28/20) and receive feedback from the other contributors and editors. Travel costs, food, and lodging for one author per paper will be covered by the foundation. Papers will be circulated before the conference. After the conference, the authors will submit their revised drafts by 9/24/20. The papers will then be sent out to three additional scholars for formal peer review. Having received feedback from reviewers and the RSF board, authors will revise their papers by 12/4/20. The full and final issue will be published in the fall of 2021. Papers will be published open access on the RSF website as well as in several digital repositories, including JSTOR and UPCC/Muse.


Andersson, Gunnar, Elizabeth Thomson, and Aija Duntava. 2017. “Life-Table Representations of Family Dynamics in the 21st Century.” Demographic Research 37: 1081–230.

Autor, David H. 2014. “Skills, education, and the rise of earnings inequality among the ‘other 99 percent’.” Science 344(6186): 843–51.

Bernhardt, Annette, Martina Morris, Mark S. Handcock, and Marc A. Scott. 2001. Divergent Paths: Economic Mobility in the New American Labor Market. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Cherlin, Andrew. 2014. Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Craig, Lyn, and Abigail Powell. “Dual-Earner Parents' Work-Family Time: The Effects of Atypical Work Patterns and Non-Parental Childcare.” Journal of Population Research, vol. 29, no. 3, 2012, pp. 229–247. JSTOR,

Dutta-Gupta, Indivar, and Grant, Kali & Kerksick, Julie & Bloom, Dan & Chaudry, Ajay. “Working to Reduce Poverty: A National Subsidized Employment Proposal.” RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, vol. 4 no. 3, 2018, pp. 64–83. Project MUSE,

Furstenberg, Frank F. 2014. “Fifty Years of Family Change: From Consensus to Complexity.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 654(1): 12–30.

Golden, Lonnie. 2015. “Irregular Work Scheduling and Its Consequences.” Economic Policy Institute, briefing paper #394.

Groshen, Erica L., and Harry J. Holzer. 2019. "Improving Employment and Earnings in Twenty-First Century Labor Markets: An Introduction." RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences 5(5): 1–19. DOI: 10.7758/RSF.2019.5.5.01

Hemez, Paul, and Wendy D. Manning. 2017. “Over Twenty-five Years of Change in Cohabitation Experience in the U.S., 1987-2013.” Family Profiles, FP-17-02. Bowling Green, OH: National Center for Family & Marriage Research.

Hill, Heather D. “Paid Sick Leave and Job Stability.” Work and Occupations, vol. 40, no. 2, May 2013, pp. 143–173, DOI:10.1177/0730888413480893.

Kalleberg, Arne L. 2011. Good Jobs, Bad Jobs: The Rise of Polarized and Precarious Employment Systems in the United States, 1970s to 2000s. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Lozano, Mariona, et al. 2016. “Non-Standard Work Schedules, Gender, and Parental Stress.” Demographic Research, vol. 34, pp. 259–284. JSTOR,

McLanahan, Sara. 2011. “Family Instability and Complexity after a Nonmarital Birth: Outcomes for Children in Fragile Families,” Pp. 108–33 in Social Class and Changing Families in an Unequal America, edited by M. J. Carlson and P. England. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Morduch, Jonathan, and Rachel Schneider. 2017. The Financial Diaries: How American Families Cope in a World of Uncertainty. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Parker, Kim, and Renee Stepler. 2017 (September 14). “As U.S. Marriage Rate Hovers at 50%, Education Gap in Marital Status Widens.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. Downloaded May 23, 2019:

Pilkauskas, Natasha V., and Christina Cross. 2018. “Beyond the Nuclear Family: Trends in Children Living in Shared Households.” Demography 55(6): 2283–97.

Pittman, LaShawnDa. 2015. “How Well Does the Safety Net Work for Family Safety Nets? Economic Survival Strategies Among Grandmother Caregivers in Severe Deprivation.” RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences 1(1): 78–97. DOI: 10.7758/RSF.2015.1.1.05

Presser, Harriett B. 2003. Working in a 24/7 Economy: Challenges for American Families. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Rolfe, Heather. 2017. “Inequality, Social Mobility and the New Economy: Introduction.” National Institute Economic Review, vol. 240, no. 1, May, pp. R1–R4, DOI:10.1177/002795011724000109.

Romanowicz Magdalena, Jennifer L. Vande Voort, Julia Shekunov, Tyler S. Oesterle, Nuria J. Thusius, Teresa A Rummans, Paul E. Croarkin, Victor M. Karpyak, Brian A. Lynch, and Kathryn M. Schak. 2019. “The Effects of Parental Opioid Use on the Parent-Child Relationship and Children's Developmental and Behavioral Outcomes: A Systematic Review of Published Reports.” Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health. Jan 12; 13: 5.

Ruhm, Christopher J. 2017. "A National Paid Parental Leave Policy for the United States." Pp. 107–22 in The 51%: Driving Growth through Women's Economic Participation, edited by D. W. Schanzenbach and R. Nunn. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.

Schneider, Daniel, and Kristen Harknett. 2019. “Consequences of Routine Work-Schedule Instability for Worker Health and Well-Being.” American Sociological Review 84(1): 82-114.

Spreitzer, Gretchen M., Lindsey Cameron, and Lyndon Garrett. 2017. "Alternative Work Arrangements: Two Images of the New World of Work." Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior 4(1): 473–99.

Wakefield, Sara, and Christopher Uggen. 2010. “Incarceration and Stratification.” Annual Review of Sociology 36(1): 387-406.

Western, Bruce, and Jake Rosenfeld. 2011. Unions, norms, and the rise in US wage inequality. American Sociological Review76(4): 513–537.

Wiemers, Emily. 2014. “The Effect of Unemployment on Household Composition and Doubling Up.” Demography 51(6): 2155–2178.


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