Academic journal article Cityscape

Employment and Earnings Trajectories during Two Decades among Adults in New York City Homeless Shelters

Academic journal article Cityscape

Employment and Earnings Trajectories during Two Decades among Adults in New York City Homeless Shelters

Article excerpt


Few portrayals exist of homeless persons as wage earners. Instead, common images of this population manifest stereotypes of "drunk, stoned, crazy and sick" single adults (Snow, Anderson, and Koegel, 1994: 461; Wright, 1989) and of families headed by single parents beset by trauma and lacking human capital (Bassuk, 2007; ICPH, 2013; Rog and Buckner, 2008). Behind these negative portrayals lie more fundamental questions related to the relevance of work in a setting of extreme poverty.

In this study, we take up questions related to the role of employment and earnings in entries into and exits from homelessness, events related to broader dynamics of homelessness. The preponderance of research on homelessness remains focused on associations between individual characteristics and outcomes related to becoming or remaining homeless, although such associations are overstated (Draine et al., 2002) and facilitate the stigma that accompanies homelessness (Phelan et al., 1997). Employment, insofar as it has a bearing on homelessness, is more ephemeral than are the relatively static individual traits. Specifically, the vagaries of losing and gaining employment can lead to becoming homeless and, alternately, offer a means of exiting homelessness.

Such employment dynamics are consistent with a stochastic model of homelessness. A precipitating shock, reflecting a sudden and transitory change in circumstances, is prerequisite to becoming homeless, and the magnitude of the shock needed to induce homelessness is inversely proportional to the degree of vulnerability an individual or family has to homelessness due to household (individual or family) social and economic factors (Goodman, Messeri, and O'Flaherty, 2016; O'Flaherty, 2012, 2009). In other words, adverse life events are instrumental for pushing a household into homelessness (Curtis et al., 2013). Job and earnings loss, as a commonly occurring economic shock (Couch, Daly, and Gardiner, 2011), is the event most often associated with falling into poverty, while regained work and earnings is the most frequent event that again lifts a household out of poverty (Bane and Ellwood, 1986; Cellini, McKernan, and Ratcliffe, 2008; Morduch and Siwicki, 2017). In a similar fashion, we investigate whether change in job status and earnings act as a catalyst for both subsequent homelessness (in the wake of a job-related shock) and for exits from homelessness (following regained work and earnings) in a large population of sheltered adults.

Research on employment and earnings among the homeless population has not attracted attention commensurate to the value that popular and policy discourse gives it (Long, Rio, and Rosen, 2007). One reason for this imbalance is that researchers have had much more difficulty accessing administrative records related to employment than records related to health and disability. Both types of data are considered highly sensitive and have considerable privacy safeguards. However, researchers examining the nature and extent of disability among the homeless routinely access health records, which are appropriately protected by confidentiality restrictions that include provisions of the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accessibility Act, or HIPAA (HHS, 2003). Meanwhile, administrative records on employment and income, from such sources as state employment agencies, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Social Security Administration (SSA), have been largely closed to researchers.

In this study, we provide one of the most expansive and systematic views to date of the role of employment and earnings in a large, sheltered homeless population consisting of both individual and family households. Using matched and aggregated administrative data from SSA and the New York City (NYC) Department of Homeless Services (DHS), we juxtapose aggregated earnings and shelter-use data for 160,525 sheltered adults during two decades of followup. If employment represents a shock of sufficient magnitude to precipitate homelessness, then these data should show associations between declines in employment and earnings and onset of shelter use. …

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