The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 26, 2016

What do we really know about jobs?

August 26, 2016

As poverty researchers, my colleagues and I spend a lot of time trying to develop an evidence base to show which program models—in areas like education, training, housing, and financial literacy— yield the greatest benefit for low-income people at the lowest cost to the public.

But the most universal—and perhaps the most potentially powerful —intervention in people’s lives isn’t the kind of social program or benefit that we study at Urban. It’s their job.

But where’s the rigorous evidence base about what job models actually make low income people’s lives better? It doesn’t really exist.

Common wisdom says a job is always better than none and that more hours, pay, and benefits are better than less. But it might not be that simple.

At Urban, we know through our research that many poor people are working people, but the jobs they have are often not conducive to making ends meet, balancing family responsibilities, or building a sustainable long-term path out of poverty.

There are all kinds of job models, even within a single sector. Similar jobs might have different wages, scheduling, benefits, training, and opportunities for advancement. Operational choices can also shape the kind of investments in human capital that are even possible.

And different job models may work better to stabilize and support different kinds of people at different times in their lives. Low-wage, part-time, and even on-demand-scheduling jobs might work fine for high school students, while a combination of predictable schedules and higher wages might be critical for young, low-income parents. For other young workers, educational benefits or additional on-the-job training might be more important than higher wages in the short term; middle-aged workers need the security of a solid retirement plan and health care benefits.

Understanding how job models work is valuable to businesses. Employees who are happier and more stable are more engaged at work, are less likely to make mistakes, and are more inclined to protect their employers from waste or fraud; happier employees help make businesses more profitable.

Many businesses are thinking creatively about human resources. Even traditionally low-wage employers are tweaking job models to boost employee engagement and maintain a competitive edge.   

But the commonly used measures of employee engagement reveal an important blind spot: how hunger, housing instability, lack of transportation, unstable or unaffordable child or elder care, inability to access short-term loans, and the like might prevent low-income workers from engaging effectively at their jobs. 

Considering employees’ circumstances could help businesses develop customized approaches to employee engagement. It could also provide an important opportunity for businesses to quantify and communicate the social impact of the jobs they provide. What if businesses could report to their shareholders not only increased quarterly earnings, but also progress toward eliminating food insecurity among their workers, and millions of dollars of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits no longer needed?

Maybe it’s time for poverty researchers to partner with businesses to start building the evidence base for how jobs can fulfill their promise for everyone. 

Donald James, a former employee of Merrymeeting Behavioral Services, shakes hands with Elizabeth Keenan, center, while Brittany Tyner, left, looks on at a job fair Monday, April 11, 2016 in Brunswick, Maine. Photo by Joel Page/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

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