May 15, 2019

When Employment Is Unstable or Low-Paying, Work Requirements Don’t Lift People from Poverty

May 15, 2019

Low-wage work is growing faster than higher-paying job sectors (PDF). And despite a strong labor market where demand for workers is high, short-term, seasonal, and temporary jobs remain on the rise. These low-paying and unstable jobs often don’t provide benefits such as health insurance, consistent scheduling, or job security.

The Urban Institute’s recent report on work requirements for residents in Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) public housing found that residents’ experiences with low-wage work is similar to national trends. Residents we interviewed said temporary, seasonal, or contractual jobs that lack benefits, job security, and affordable, reliable child care present challenges to finding and retaining employment.

Some politicians are discussing instituting work requirements for people who use programs such as Medicaid, public housing, or the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) as a strategy to help people exit public housing or decrease the use of government subsidized programs. But our Chicago case study suggests that although most working age residents in CHA are employed and meet the policy requirement, their jobs do not pay enough to allow them to afford market rate housing or stop using public programs such as SNAP and Medicaid.

What residents told us about their employment challenges

We interviewed residents who were homecare workers, security guards, attendants at stadiums, and paraprofessionals in schools, among other jobs. Most residents discussed being in the workforce since high school and the challenges of needing to work multiple jobs and navigating seasonal job hunting as baseball season ended or the school year finished.

Balancing work and family schedules under the best circumstances can be stressful. But for a single parent, working nontraditional hours in multiple low-paying jobs adds to their stress, as many of the residents we interviewed described.

Our interviews found that many people seek jobs that provide opportunities to move up the career ladder in fields like health care and the trades. As one resident described, “I’m looking for a career job... and I’d like to do electrician training, something that isn’t a dead end.”

These long-term pathways to better-paying careers can be key to residents’ future economic stability, but that journey can mean years of working in low-paying or temporary positions, often while continuing their education and raising families.

When jobs aren’t enough for people to leave public housing

Chicago, like many other cities, is an increasingly expensive place to live. Although many residents we interviewed said they wanted to leave public housing and find a market-rate unit, their current employment in low-wage work put that goal out of reach. 

A generation ago, public housing emerged as a support for low-income families following the Great Depression and World War II. Access to affordable housing helped residents worry less about high rents and substandard housing and focus on finding jobs to support their families.

Affordable housing still aims to work this way, but unlike a generation ago, the jobs that public housing residents can access today no longer provide the income and economic opportunities that enable them to easily leave subsidized housing.

Johan, a for-hire driver who runs his own service and drives for Uber on the side, drives through the West Side of Manhattan on Wednesday evening, August 8, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images).

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