Complexity of Family Life among the Low-Income and Working Poor: Introduction to the Special Issue

By Dyk, Patricia Hyjer | Family Relations, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Complexity of Family Life among the Low-Income and Working Poor: Introduction to the Special Issue


Dyk, Patricia Hyjer, Family Relations


Like all families, low-income and working-poor families need economic stability, safety, good health, and engagement in the larger community. However, the complexity of their lives is greatly impacted by limited economic resources. Three primary themes are explored by the 12 articles in this special issue: competing Stressors and tensions, effective parenting, and economic stability and financial decision making. Key findings and program and policy implications identified by each set of authors are discussed. This body of work provides research-based practice and policy suggestions to guide future efforts in partnering with families to strengthen their families and communities for successful enhancement of child well-being.

Key Words: families, family policy, low-income, poverty.

(Family Relations, 2004, 53, 122-126)

How well we all know that family life is complex, regardless of our income level. Daily we juggle with meeting competing demands to care for our own physical, emotional, and psychological needs, as well as the needs of other family members. We rely upon our own sets of coping strategies and a history of either having successfully or not-so-successfully accomplished our goals. Often we turn to others for assistance. Besides maintaining these social relationships, we also dedicate energy to acquiring and allocating financial resources to sustain daily life. All of these activities are influenced by societal norms, values, policies, and institutions. If it is common that families experience these challenges and constraints, why focus on the complexity of family life among those who are low income and working poor?

Those of you reading this article likely started the day by waking up in a warm, cozy bed (safe shelter). After taking a hot shower (utilities paid) and choosing among several outfits to wear (appropriate clothing), you headed for the refrigerator/freezer/pantry to grab a nutritious breakfast for yourself and your children (food secure). Next, after checking for completed homework and lunch money in your children's backpacks (developmentally appropriate parenting skills), you probably headed for the car (reliable transportation). Once dropping the older children at school (instead of being bussed across town) and the preschooler at child care (a safe, nurturing, quality child care center), you headed to your job (with family medical benefits). This would not be the beginning of a typical day for most low-income and working-poor families you will learn about in the following articles. Although they attempt to achieve the same basic conditions for their households, their ability to meet these objectives is affected greatly by their limited economic resources.

Low-income and working-poor families are different from middle- and upper-income families in part because of their exposure to and experience of substantial stressors. These include high rates of parental unemployment, low-wage jobs, underdeveloped human capital (lower educational attainment), greater barriers to obtaining social services, unstable and unsafe living arrangements, family and community violence, and substance abuse (Seccombe, 2002). Subsequently, these challenges affect their ability to care for their children. Parents may be piecing together a patchwork of two to three part-time jobs, with limited flexibility to schedule medical appointments, attend school conferences or programs, or participate in their children's activities. These parents also have more stress, because they are unable to give their children the lifestyle benefits associated with having a reliable income (Rubin, 1994).

Pervasiveness of Poverty

As defined by the Office of Management and Budget and updated for inflation using the Consumer Price Index, the average poverty threshold for a family of four in 2002 was $18,392 in annual income, compared with $14,348 for a family of three, $11,756 for a family of two, and $9,183 for unrelated individuals (U. …

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