More Families Feel Insecure. That’s Because They Are.

In the suburbs, income is more volatile, and you’re more vulnerable.

Punchclock worker.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

In Suburban Slide, the Better Life Lab explores the changing face of poverty in the United States and how the symbol of American prosperity became the new place of poverty. In a six-part series, we explore what this means for Americans’ work-life conflicts and American identity in general.

“My income changes by a couple hundred per month. I try to do the right thing and get the help I can to pay rent, pay bills,” says Jennifer Green from Ocean View, a suburb of Norfolk, Virginia. Green makes $11.25 an hour as a cake-decorator for Harris Teeter, a North Carolina–based grocery store chain, which she balances with her responsibilities as a single mom, caring for her son, daughter, and brother. Green can’t work full time because full-time hours require “open availability,” i.e. unpredictable hours incompatible with her caregiving needs.

“I’m a hard worker so they try to give me a good bit of hours every week. I average 28–30, sometimes I go over that. But if my weekly average goes above 34, they’ll give me two to three weeks in a row when I get 10 or 12 hours.” In order to avoid full-time status and open availability (which would also require Harris Teeter to pay benefits such as health insurance and sick time), Green takes between eight and 30 hours of work per week, bouncing her in and out of Medicaid and food stamps eligibility—not to mention poverty—on a weekly basis. The implications of hovering above and below the poverty line are particularly dire to Green, since Medicaid covers the medications and therapy she needs to deal with her post-traumatic stress (from growing up with her parents’ drug addiction and without basic food, water, and electricity in rural Appalachia, as well as living through a house fire that killed her mom, to name a few causes).

Many different pieces of research tell the same startling story: Volatile incomes are an issue up and down the economic ladder, and this volatility is concentrated in the suburbs, where jobs are more likely to be like Green’s experiences in service and retail than the stable salaried jobs more available in urban centers. In following 235 families across the U.S. for a year, Rachel Schneider and Jonathan Morduch found that during five months of the year, family income spikes or dips above or below the average by about 25 percent.* Given that households are supposed to spend less than a third of their income on housing, having income spike or dip 25 percent can mean the difference from missing a rent or a mortgage payment each month.

In analyzing data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (a group more affluent and representative than from Schneider and Morduch’s work), researchers at the Urban Institute also confirmed Schneider and Morduch’s findings: One-quarter of adults, and 42 percent of low-income adults, see their income swing 25 percent five months out of the year. According to Fiona Greig, co-author of Coping with Costs, a report examining income and spending patterns of JPMorgan Chase customers: “Income fluctuates significantly month to month to the tune of roughly 30%, regardless of whether you earn 30K or 130K.”

In examining data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth 1997 Cohort, Susan Lambert, Peter Fugiel, and Julia Henley found unpredictable, fluctuating work hours affect most young adults, and that this is particularly prevalent among workers of color, hourly workers, lower-income workers, women in part-time work, and working parents. They recently re-ran the analysis with new data and saw similar results. Lambert, Fugiel, and Henley estimate that 40-50 percent of Americans “work above or below this [40-hour] work standard, incurring fluctuations in their work hours that can place them at risk of under-employment or over-work.” And this is perhaps a lower-bound estimate of the problem, since the survey excluded self-employed, independent, and contract workers, who now make up an estimated 15.8 percent to 20 percent of the U.S. workforce.

Income volatility can be devastating if you’re unable to “smooth,” or draw from other financial resources—your savings, a family member, friend, or neighbor, a credit card—in tough economic times. In her work with the Panel of Income Dynamics Survey, economist Olga Gorbachev found that while income uncertainty has increased, wealthier households weren’t hurt by it in the same way as middle- and low-income families because they could draw from savings or access credit (borrow). But data from the 2016 Federal Research Survey of Household Economic Decision-Making paints a bleak picture of the limited income and wealth of American households: About half can’t cover an emergency expense over $400, and one-quarter of adults can’t pay a month’s bills in full.

And as with everything else in the U.S. the effects of income volatility and shocks are particularly acute for historically marginalized groups—women and people of color—who have less income and wealth to begin with due to intentionally segregationist public policies and discriminatory lending, real estate, and other cultural practices. And hours volatility affects your work-family responsibilities. We often assume that suburbanites commute into the city for work and then return home to live out a middle-class home life in the evenings. In article one, we explore how this image couldn’t be further from reality as longtime suburban residents age into poverty, low- and middle-income families move to the suburbs, and immigration flows change. The reality is that an increasing number of suburbanites are limited to these volatile work opportunities near home.

Elizabeth Kneebone, author of Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, suggests “Jobs continued to shift towards the suburbs in the 2000s, and lower-paying jobs in retail and the service sector are among the most suburbanized. Those jobs may come with no benefits or unpredictable schedules.” If suburban jobs are services jobs, the income picture becomes increasingly bleak. Daniel Schneider’s findings in the Retail Work and Family Life Survey, a national survey of 6,000 service-sector workers, suggests unpredictable schedules drive large, and common income swings in the service sector, resulting in financial insecurity. While weekly earnings swing an average of 34 percent for the typical worker, this can be as low as 20 percent or as high as 54 percent on average—depending on whether workers are in the top or bottom quartile of earnings. Unsurprisingly, Schneider also found clear disparities by educational attainment and race. While this issue is not limited to the suburbs, it might be particularly bad in suburban economies driven by hourly service work, and more physically isolated from family and social services.

According to Yale political science professor Jacob Hacker, who oversaw the development of the Economic Security Index, “It’s not just about the income dip. It’s also about the perceived risk and probability of that happening, which creates stress.” General economic insecurity is worsening because Americans have earned less money over time, and benefits that previously shielded them from shocks—health care (out-of-pocket medical expenses), retirement, and welfare, for example—have shifted from government and employers to individuals. People are less able to save and tackle both daily expenses and emergency costs when they come up. The result: People are both anticipating and experiencing hardship up and down the economic ladder.

Susan Lambert says it doesn’t have to be this way. Variability is more predictable than you think. “There’s a lot more stability in demand than you would think from looking at peoples’ schedules,” says Lambert. Many think a lack of predictability is inherent to retail jobs, but Lambert says that it’s possible to predict that morning coffee rush or when people do their grocery shopping and build schedules around it.

In Where Bad Jobs are Better, labor specialists Françoise Carré and Chris Tilly also find poor pay and working conditions in retail jobs are not inevitable, and can be smoothed out by cultural and policy shifts around minimum wage laws, paid family and medical leave, universal child care, higher pay for weekend and night shifts, and unionization, among other things. Their book shows how retail working conditions vary both across and within countries, as, for example, under an employer like Walmart. Unlike their American counterparts, Mexican Walmart workers largely work full-time, are unionized, and make slightly more than other Mexican retail workers. Such policies make it possible to live comfortably day to day and offset consequences of emergencies when they come up—be it through paid family and medical leave, more comprehensive health insurance, or retirement support. These changes would go a long way to smoothing much of the work-life chaos taking over American suburbs and elsewhere.

Any notion of work-life balance gets thrown to the wind when precarious, volatile, and stagnant income becomes the new norm. Before her move to Harris Teeter, Green had worked full-time at Walmart for four years. But when the death of her stepfather, taking custody of her brother, and getting the flu coincided in a particularly difficult month, Walmart terminated her while she six months pregnant with her daughter, Jasmine. While her part-time situation at Harris Teeter may be relatively less precarious than at Walmart, Green can still only expect a $1 raise if she sticks with it for the next four years (a 25-cent raise per year). And because service jobs, like cake-decorating, dominate the suburban economy, her experience of hourly wages, no benefits, and unpredictable schedules are the best she can hope for at the moment.

After being fired from Walmart, Green lived off her credit as she gave birth to and cared for Jasmine: “I’ve taken out a bunch of credit cards and maxed them out. I’ve exhausted my options and my credit is crap.” And there’s no one nearby for her to borrow money from. That’s another effect of poverty’s concentration in the suburbs. People’s networks are less dense, meaning they have fewer people to ask for help.

“I’m really stuck. I won’t pick a job over my family or mental stability. I’m not going to let a job own me and control my life. I need to be there—I have family day with my kids on Saturday—no one is taking that away from me.” Green makes too much money to qualify for SSDI, which would afford her a more reliable source of income and better enable her to take care of her mental health. So Green focuses on the musts—water and electric, her therapy—and a few nice-to-haves, like the cable and phone bill: “It’s basically impossible to get out of poverty if you’re born into it. I probably could have myself out of poverty if I didn’t have kids. But I have to be the mom and the dad. And I’m determined to get my kids out of poverty.” Though, she admitted, she wasn’t quite sure how.

*Correction, March 22, 2018: This piece originally misspelled Jonathan Morduch’s last name.