Urban Wire How do we help children thrive amid instability?
Julia B. Isaacs
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How can we help children thrive even during times of instability? When parents lose a job or when children have to frequently move or change schools or caregivers, the resulting instability can threaten healthy child development. We may wonder what we can do—as parents and as members of society—to cushion children from the negative aspects of instability.

As parents, we can do quite a bit. Our children look to us for guidance and support during times of change. Before children start kindergarten or transfer to a new school, we can visit the classroom with them. We can read them a story about how another child (or a cartoon animal) has dealt with change and loss. We can share some of our own feelings about how a change is affecting the family, while being careful not to lean on the child for emotional support.

If instability is overwhelming our own coping skills, we can turn to our relatives, neighbors, friends, and others in our child’s life to offer additional supports. As adults, it is our role to provide emotional and practical support for children as they face many of the inevitable changes and transitions in life.

Similarly, as a society, we can play a part in mitigating some of the negative effects of instability on children. After attending a day-long symposium on instability and child well-being, and reflecting on my own research on the effects of the recession on children, I come away with three policy recommendations:

1)      Provide a strong safety net. Several types of instability—including job loss, divorce or separation, family illness, involuntary reductions in hours worked—put a strain on family income and reduce the amount of economic resources available to support children’s healthy development. Public benefits, including unemployment insurance, nutrition assistance, and cash welfare, can help a family get through hard economic times without cutting back on children’s needs for food, shelter, clothing, and education and care.

While many public benefits expanded to meet increased needs during the recession, the safety net fell short in important respects. It could be improved by expanding coverage of unemployment insurance benefits, which supported less than half of children with unemployed parents in 2012; rejecting proposals to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), which supports more children with unemployed parents than unemployment insurance does; and amending the Temporary Assistance for Families program to make its contingency fund more effective at providing additional resources in times of high unemployment.

2)      Examine program policies to see whether they needlessly exacerbate instability. Program policies may inadvertently contribute to a “cascade of instability,” such as when parents lose child care benefits when they lose a job, or when a housing move leads to loss of benefits or services linked to certain geographic areas. With creative thinking, policymakers can design policy solutions to maintain stability despite changing circumstances. For example, federal child care law and regulations give states the option of providing child care subsidies during employment gaps in order to improve the stability of child care.

3)     Consider targeting services to directly address instability. Certain communities and families are more affected by instability than others. One policy option is to target services toward particular populations, such as providing additional supports to homeless students under the McKinney-Vento Homeless education programs or providing additional resources, such as family resource centers, to schools with unusually high rates of student mobility. Another good example is the Housing Opportunity and Services Together (HOST) demonstration, which is testing whether taking a whole-family approach to providing intensive services can help stabilize children, youth, and families living in public housing.

Children are resilient, and many children will thrive even as their families and communities undergo considerable instability. We can improve our children’s chances of success, however, by taking proactive steps to buffer them from some of the downsides of instability.

For more on instability, read the paper and collection of essays that resulted from Urban's recent convening on instability.

Photo: An unemployed mother with her daughter. (AP Photo/Gosia Wozniacka)

Research Areas Economic mobility and inequality Children and youth
Tags Public service and subsidized employment programs Family and household data Child support Child care Children's health and development Child welfare Economic well-being Workers in low-wage jobs Labor force Unemployment and unemployment insurance Kids in context Families with low incomes Neighborhoods and youth development Child care and workers
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population