The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
December 4, 2016

Stabilizing children’s lives: Insights for research and action

December 5, 2016

Over the next two weeks, Urban scholars are reflecting on how different aspects of children’s lives affect family instability and their healthy development. This team of scholars recently released a report laying out insights from an exploration of what research is needed to stabilize the lives of children and families. This work is part of Urban’s Kids in Context Initiative.

To thrive, children need strong relationships with loving adults, a stable environment, and consistent access to food, housing, education, and health care. These basics give children the foundation they need to explore, learn, and grow.

But too many children do not have this stable foundation, and instability in one or more of these areas threatens their well-being. While brief instability in a child’s life is expected and can build resilience, instability can harm a child’s development if its negative impacts are not buffered.

Over the past year, researchers at the Urban Institute, with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, have examined what research is needed to inform efforts to stabilize children’s lives. Here’s some of what we learned:

Instability is widespread. Instability, an abrupt or involuntary change in a child’s life that can have adverse implications for their development, is far too common. Two in five adults living with children lose a quarter or more of their income at least once a year. A third of working mothers and almost half of working fathers ages 26 to 32 have a week or less advance notice of their work schedules. About one in six households with children do not have enough food to meet the needs of all family members.

There are many other challenges that can destabilize children, including changing schools, homelessness, family members’ health crises, the incarceration or deportation of a parent, or community violence, to name a few.  

Instability does not have to be experienced directly to affect children’s well-being, either. These days, children of immigrants, children of color, children of Muslims, and transgender children are experiencing greater instability simply by being members of a community facing increasing discrimination.

Stability depends on a complex web of supports. We considered the roles of parents and primary caregivers, social and community networks, caring institutions (e.g., child care and schools), employment, income and assets, key resources (e.g., health, housing, and food), and the public safety net in fostering stability. We found that every sector can trigger, prevent, or buffer instability in children’s lives. But we also found that these sectors are interconnected. How vulnerable children are to instability depends on their ability to access a complex web of stabilizing supports across these domains. This web is also affected by child and family characteristics, community context, and larger systemic factors.

While these realities add to the complexity of the problem, it means that everyone–family members, community groups or social networks, employers, schools and child care programs, health care providers, public agencies—can help stabilize children and families.

There is a wealth of knowledge and expertise that we can build upon. People in many of these domains are working to stabilize children and families and have important lessons to share. Bringing these experts together, building on their knowledge and expertise, and helping establish a common knowledge base could help fill gaps in our understanding of instability.

Despite what we know, we have a lot to learn. Many questions remain. Which children and families experience instability in multiple domains? Which children face gaps in their web of stabilizing supports? Does this vary for communities that have faced systemic inequities and for families who face extra challenges? How does instability play out at different developmental stages?  

We also need to learn more about how each of these sectors triggers instability or buffers its effects. What can we do to strengthen each sector’s role in that web?  How do they work in combination?

We also need better measures of instability. Suggestions include measuring indicators more frequently, developing more nuanced measures, and creating indicators that capture the damaging characteristics of instability or how instability in one area triggers events in other areas.

Instability may be an issue that can bring people together to support families. Because instability resonates with a broad segment of the American public, raising awareness of it could spur people to action. Instability is also a costly problem for public institutions, employers, and caring institutions, which may motivate them to act.

Over the coming two weeks, we will publish a series of blog posts highlighting some of what we learned about instability within the key domains we examined, including parenting, community and social networks, education and child care, employment, income, housing, food insecurity, and the public safety net. These posts will identify some of the work that practitioners, researchers, and policymakers need to do in every sector to support stability and healthy development for our children. 

Posts in this series:

Photo by Cheryl Lynn Mitchell/Getty Images

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.