Employment, Earnings, and Homelessness

Employment, Earnings, and Homelessness
Stephen Metraux, Jamison D. Fargo, Nicholas Eng, Dennis P. Culhane
Publication Date:
Find Full Text

In contrast to the portrayal of homelessness as affecting people with behavioral health problems or low employment capacity, cycles of homelessness could reflect job shifts that bring a household in or out of poverty. To assess the connections between employment and homelessness, researchers focused on three topics: (1) employment and earnings before, during, and after adults used a homeless shelter; (2) changes in employment and earnings in connection to shelter entry and exit; and (3) employment and earnings differences between adults who are homeless as part of a family versus as individuals.

Using matched and aggregated administrative data from the Social Security Administration and the New York City Department of Homeless Services, researchers compared shelter use, employment, and earnings for 160,525 adults in New York City who used a homeless shelter between 1990 and 2002. Earnings and employment data spanned up to 10 years before and 5 to 10 years after the shelter stay (1980 to 2007) but did not include income from benefit programs or from sources not reported to the Social Security Administration. More than half of the adults in the study were black. Among single adults, 80 percent were male, while 93 percent of the adults in homeless families were women.

Key findings

  • While staying in a homeless shelter, 38 percent of adults in families and 45 percent of single adults received income from employment.
  • For both single adults and those in families, employment rates and wage income dropped in the period before entering a homeless shelter.
  • Both groups also had higher earnings after exiting shelter. The study did not determine whether earnings facilitated exit from shelter, whether it rose after exiting shelter, or if there was a reinforcing relationship.
  • Exits to permanent housing among both singles and families was associated with higher employment and earnings.
  • Employment and earnings patterns differ among adults who were homeless as individuals versus those who were in families.
  • After exiting shelter, employment and earnings were up for adults in families. The reduction in earnings and employment during the shelter period was accompanied by a greater gain after exiting shelter.
  • For single adults, average annual employment dropped during the shelter stay and then dropped more after exiting shelter. Among those who were working, earnings dropped during the shelter stay but rose after exit to surpass preshelter average earnings.
  • Although working adults in families saw a net wage increase of 60 percent from preshelter to postshelter, their postshelter earnings were below the 2008 federal poverty level for a family of two ($14,000).
  • Single adults who were in the workforce during the postshelter period earned enough, on average, to exceed the 2008 federal poverty level for a one-person household ($10,400).
  • For single adults, long-term shelter stays were associated with higher employment and earnings compared with people who used shelter either episodically or as a transitional use, suggesting that a segment of the long-term individual homeless population could benefit from vocational supports and services.
  • For adults in families, employment and earnings were higher among those who were long-term shelter users compared with episodic (but not transitional) shelter users.
  • Sixty-three percent of adults in families exited shelter to stable living situations, compared with 20 percent of single adults.

Photo by Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock