Work Hours Volatility and Child Poverty: The Potential Mitigating Role of Safety Net Programs. By: Cai, Julie. 2024. Social Forces. Vol. 102 Issue 3, p902-925.

Despite established links among persistent unemployment, low wages, and children’s economic well-being, social scientists have yet to document how variability in work hours is linked to child poverty. Our knowledge of the safety net’s heterogeneous responses to work-hour instability is also limited. This is of critical importance for scholars and policymakers. Using nationally representative data collected every 4 months, this paper examines how intra-year work-hour volatility is related to child poverty, measured through both the official poverty measure (OPM) and the supplemental poverty measure (SPM). It further assesses varying degrees of buffering effects of cash, in-kind benefits, and tax transfers on income in the context of work-hour volatility. Results indicate that more than one in four households (26%) facing the greatest volatility lived under the poverty line. Black and Hispanic children, as well as those living with unpartnered single mothers, faced substantially higher variability in household market hours worked. Hispanic children experienced not only greater volatility in their caregivers’ work hours but also higher poverty level, even after taking government programs into account. In-kind benefits are more effective in buffering household income declines resulting from unstable work hours, followed by tax transfers and cash benefits. The effectiveness of near-cash benefits is particularly salient among Black children and children of single mothers. These results provide new evidence to inform policy discussions surrounding the best ways to help socioeconomically disadvantaged families to retain benefits and smooth their income in the face of frequent variation in work hours and, thus, earnings.