What Do Homeless People Earn?

I’m going to keep this post short, mainly to announce that I’ve posted a manuscript in the writing tab of this website on employment, earnings and homelessness. This manuscript is now accepted and “in press” at the journal Cityscape. The journal’s editor, Mark Shroder, was very supportive in working with me and my coauthors (Jameson Fargo, Nick Eng and Dennis Culhane) on getting this paper across the finish line, which was a welcome change from two previous journals to which we had submitted this paper, both of which did not give it a fair shake. Their loss.

I have not seen any study go as in depth about employment and homelessness as this one. In writing the literature review, I was surprised and frustrated at how little research of any kind there was on the extent to which people experiencing homelessness worked, their earnings, or the impact that employment has on homelessness (and vice versa).

In contrast, the data we use comes from a match between NYC shelter records and Social Security Administration earnings records. I get a letter from SSA each year giving me my life earnings history and what I can expect to pull down in Social Security benefits. The data they gave us is essentially those earnings. Given the sensitivity of the data, they aggregated it, but we got them to slice and dice it into groups small enough so we could do things with the data, and still big enough to ensure anonymity.

What we find is that, even when sheltered, 38 percent of adults in families and 45 percent of single adults received wage income. Whether that is good or bad is a glass half full/half empty type of proposition, but it also shows a dramatic drop in income in the period leading up to homelessness as well as an upswing in earnings following homelessness that suggests that many households will rebound and recover lost ground, vocationally, after they exit homelessness. I wrote more about this aspect of the findings in this previous blog entry I wrote while revising the paper.

Work matters. It is something people across the political spectrum can agree on. It just doesn’t get much attention from homelessness researchers, perhaps because data on the issue is scarce. This contrasts to the slew of studies (more than a few authored or coauthored by me) on individual deficits such as substance abuse, mental health and criminal justice and their impact on homelessness. This relative inattention to employment and vocational pursuits in a homeless context is also reflected in policy. Hopefully this paper can help remedy this.

Link to the paper is here, or click on the writing tab.

Postscript to the last blog entry on the webinar about homelessness among post-9/11 vets, I gave it on Tuesday and it went well. I gave it a plug on social media, which led to some folks tuning in who were outside of the usual VA crowd. I also will write up what I said (based upon this paper) in a piece for the Veteran Scholars blog that Sidra Montgomery and Meredith Kleykamp have at the University of Maryland.

Stephen Metraux