Full-time work alone won't close the child opportunity gap

Low-income, Black and Hispanic children get much less from their parents' jobs
Published: 08.31.2022 Updated: 03.17.2023

Good jobs provide the lion’s share of resources that families need to care for their children.  Wages pay for basic day-to-day necessities like housing, food and child care—and allow for opportunities like tutoring, extracurriculars and college savings accounts. Beyond wages, employer-provided health insurance, pension plans and predictable work schedules are just a few characteristics of jobs that help parents support their children.

Despite all of these factors, poor job quality is an overlooked contributor to the child opportunity gap, defined as the inequitable distribution of resources and experiences by income, race/ethnicity, immigration status, geography and other factors. Our recent research shows that in the years leading up to the pandemic, a significant proportion of families in the United States working full time did not earn enough to meet their children’s basic needs. Black, Hispanic and low-income working families were even less likely to have adequate wages and benefits to support their children, despite working full time.

For policymakers and advocates invested in reducing child poverty equitably, improving parents’ job quality is an important policy lever to push. Investing in good jobs is a key way to start.

Full-time work does not cover basic costs for many families with children

In our new paper in RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, we find that more than one-third of families that work full time, year-round do not earn enough to cover a basic family budget that includes food, housing, child care, medical care, transportation, taxes and other necessities. For Black and Hispanic families, the situation is much worse. More than half of these families—52% of Black and 59% of Hispanic families—cannot cover their basic needs, compared to only 25% of White families and 23% of Asian families. These inequities persist even after controlling for education, occupation and other characteristics.

When looking at low-income families (<200% Supplemental Poverty Measure), the situation is dire. More than 75% of low-income families working full time cannot cover their basic needs. The inequities by race/ethnicity are stark, with 84% of low-income Black and Hispanic families working full time unable to cover a family budget.

These data come from 2015-2019, before the pandemic caused massive layoffs that disproportionately affected Black, Hispanic, immigrant and low-income workers, and before inflation and higher gas prices made families’ ability to provide for their children even more challenging. Without policies to address the gaps in adequate wages or employer-provided benefits, child opportunity gaps by race/ethnicity and income will persist.

Low-income families working full time are far from family-sustaining wages

For low-income families working full time that do not earn enough to cover a basic budget, the difference between what they have and what they need is large. On average, these families need an additional $23,500 in yearly earnings (or $11.00 more per hour) to cover basic expenses. Black and Hispanic low-income families need to earn even more: about $26,000 in additional annual earnings, compared to $19,800 for White low-income families. 

Full-time work does not guarantee employer-provided benefits  

Our research finds that health insurance is the most common employer-provided benefit available to working families. But there are stark differences in access by income and race/ethnicity. Low-income Hispanic families with children have extremely limited access to benefits through their employers: less than half (48%) have health insurance, and less than one-quarter (24%) have pensions.

To improve job quality equitably and reduce child opportunity gaps, policy change is needed

Most low-income families cannot cover a basic budget by working full time. The prevalence of low wages and limited employer-provided benefits point to a clear need for public investment and changes in employers’ practices that better support workers and their families’ economic livelihoods.

We are seeing promising policy changes. A federal initiative recently kicked off with a systematic focus on the creation of good jobs, and a recent Executive Order insists that policy changes be equitable and include underserved groups. Policymakers have a menu of data-driven options to choose from to improve and supplement poor job quality, protect low-income workers and their families and create more equitable policies.

Far too many children live in families who work full time with inadequate compensation and poor job quality, which has lasting economic and health consequences. That these children are disproportionately Black and Hispanic further deepens racial/ethnic inequities. Policy improvements must dismantle what look like, but are not, race neutral eligibility requirements and administratively burdensome rules, and these policies must explicitly serve the highest-need children. We have found that making family-supportive policies more equitable and inclusive for groups who have historically been excluded improves economic and employment outcomes for all families and lifts up the groups that need it the most.  

Headshot of Pamela Joshi
Pamela Joshi
Policy Research Director
Headshot of Abigail Walters
Abigail N. Walters
Research Associate
Headshot of Leah Shafer
Leah Shafer
Senior Communications Specialist