The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
December 15, 2016

Stabilizing families requires thinking outside of the box

December 16, 2016

Over the last two weeks, Urban scholars reflected 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.

Family and childhood instability is complex. It can be triggered in any part of a family’s life and can be an isolated event or part of a cascade of instability across different areas. 

A parent losing a job and related income can simply be that, resulting in stress and temporary challenges for a family, but then things stabilize when the parent finds another job and the paychecks resume. Or that job loss can be the first domino to fall, causing instability in other areas of a child’s life, such as losing their home, their school, and access to sufficient food. Or losing a job can be a domino that falls because of a problem elsewhere, such as a health crisis or a broken-down car with no money for repairs.

The interconnected nature of instability is seen every day by people who work directly with children and families: the teacher whose student is failing because of eviction-related absences, the small-business owner whose employee is missing work because of her child’s repeated asthma attacks from living in substandard housing, or the pediatrician working with a new mother struggling with depression who has to return to a job with an unstable schedule and no child care.  

Our recent report on instability makes it clear that every sector can reduce the role it plays in triggering instability, or work to prevent it or ameliorate its consequences. This is, in some ways, a hopeful aspect of this work—everyone can do something to help. But we must work across areas, across disciplines, and outside our individual spheres of expertise. Stabilizing families requires cross-sector efforts, a few of which are highlighted here. 

Identifying common warning signs

We should identify warning signs of instability across sectors and help those working with families know what to do when they find reason for concern.

Some initial steps are being taken in this area; for example, food insecurity appears to be an early warning sign, and the American Academy of Pediatrics has suggested that questions about it be made part of pediatric screenings. Some schools use chronic absenteeism to help them identify children who are at risk and need further supports

We need to build on these early steps by working across sectors to identify common warning signs, develop and test screening tools and mechanisms, and tailor and share these tools across the range of entities and systems that come into contact with families and children.

These efforts, along with strengthening support services to prevent instability for families once they are identified, could help reduce the cascade of instability in families’ lives.

Sharing lessons learned

Many people in different sectors are actively working to stabilize families. While they do not necessarily share the same language or terminology or see themselves as working on instability, they wrestle with common challenges. And they have been learning important lessons and have important insights to share.

Think of the commonalities between people working to stabilize homeless children, people working to stabilize and integrate refugee families, experts in the military working to support children of military personnel who are deployed or changing location, and people working to stabilize communities after natural disasters. Similar commonalities can be found across different research disciplines looking at instability from different angles or policymakers wrestling with common challenges in different systems.

Bringing these perspectives and knowledge together could help fill the gaps in our knowledge, identify common concerns and pathways, and shape priorities for action. 

Engaging and investing in outside-the-box policies and research

There are exciting efforts in research, policy, and practice that are working across siloes to help stabilize families: in schools, in supportive housing, in public benefit programs, and so forth.

Focusing on these interconnections, whether programmatic strategies, policy efforts, or research, is critical in helping us stabilize families.

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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.