Earnings and Homelessness

I really like this figure. It’s relatively simple but as I stare at it a deeper story emerges.

The figure shows average earnings trajectories of sheltered family households (left) and single adults (right), based on a match of shelter records and social security earnings data. It shows two things. First, the drop in earnings that bottoms out right at the point where a person enters shelter shows the consequences of losing work. Second, for both singles and families, earnings recover as most households do manage to put homelessness behind them. Especially for adults in families, earnings increase over the life course.

This isn’t, of course, the whole story. Roughly half of homeless households (family and single) have earnings records, even well after they have exited shelter, in what amounts to a glass half full or empty state of affairs. The earnings for many households are not enough to pull them over the poverty threshold. And, while sheltered adults in families gain a greater attachment to the workforce over time and after they have exited shelter, this attachment attenuates for single adults.

If you are interested in more details, contact me. The figure is part of a paper that some colleagues and I are in the process of revising for publication, and I don’t currently have a finished, revised draft to post. The paper promises to be one of the most extensive studies to date between homelessness and work, which isn’t saying all that much because it has been a neglected topic.

The paper has been hanging over my head for several years now. I had big aims for this paper to appear in a decent sociology journal. I wanted this to be more of a theory grounded, academic piece of the type I had been trained to write in graduate school, before I got more involved with policy. This never worked out. For the initial journals I had submitted this paper to, I didn’t feel like the reviewers ever got the paper, nor did the editors see much value in it. Despite this, I put the paper through several contortions to address reviewer stipulations, but it ultimately imploded into a bad experience. By then I was off to other things and it sat for awhile. If it weren’t for the pushes from my coauthors, this paper would still be sitting.

We are working now with the HUD journal Cityscape, where the editor has been much more positive, although we now have another set of reviews to address. Much of the revising, at this point, involves shedding the stuff we’d added in our previous efforts to get this published. The resistance to picking this up and getting it over the finish line is very strong, but I made progress this weekend and I finally feel momentum.

Wrapping this up, I’m left wondering if I am writing this as yet one more way of avoiding the work remaining on the earnings paper. But looking at this figure, and the story it tells, makes the importance of this piece clear, and renews my determination to get it done.

Stephen Metraux