Professor Wen-Jui Han is one of the world’s foremost researchers on the effects of parental employment, and particularly nonstandard work schedules, on children’s cognitive, social, and emotional well-being. In recent years, she has expanded the scope of her research to encompass parental “job precarity,” which has not been well defined or studied in the United States, in the hopes of reshaping the country’s public policy response to enhance the well-being of families and children and reduce intergenerational health and economic inequality.
“What I’ve observed over time in the U.S. is that there are more and more people holding jobs that are unstable and unpredictable,” said Dr. Han. “In addition to having nonstandard work schedules, they may be working part-time involuntarily, or their jobs are low-wage/low-skill, which tend not to have much security, or they don’t have any benefits, or they feel disempowered in the workplace. Those are all features of precarious jobs. However, I found that the U.S. does not really collect data on job precarity.”
With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. in early 2020, Dr. Han gathered data on parental job precarity in the U.S. in a study on its impact during the public health crisis. She and Jake Hart, MSW ’20, who was a student in her Research Project Seminar courses, conducted an online survey in May 2020 of 1,000 parents across the U.S. with at least one child aged 17 or younger on their degree of job precarity, economic prospects, mental health, substance use, and children’s well-being. The project was funded by a grant from the NYU Silver Dean’s Upstream Research Seed Fund.
Since there is not an established scale for measuring job precarity in the U.S., Dr. Han and Mr. Hart adapted six indicators from the Employment Precariousness Scale (EPRES), designed and validated by the Health Inequalities Research Group at Pompeu Fabra University in Spain, as well as three indicators based on a consensus from established scholarship. The nine indicators they used to measure the degree of job precarity were employment instability, disempowerment, vulnerability, material rewards, entitlement to benefits, and ability to exercise rights, low skill work, part-time work, and nonstandard work schedule from established scholarship.
Dr. Han and Mr. Hart used brief versions of established measures to assess job loss and income loss, mental health, substance use, and child happiness. “When you are collecting data online, the questions can’t be too complex or take participants much time,” said Dr. Han. “You need very short versions of scales that are widely used and produce valid results.”
Dr. Han and Mr. Hart’s study found that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disparate impact on parents with precarious employment with respect to losing work and income, mental health and substance abuse, and well-being of their children. Four papers based on the study have been published in respected journals: Job precarity and economic prospects during the COVID-19 public health crisis in Social Science Quarterly, COVID-19 experiences and parental mental health in the Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research, Precarious job and use of alcohol or substance during COVID-19 public health crisis in Sociology Mind, and Precarious parental employment, economic hardship, and parenting and child happiness amidst a pandemic, in Children and Youth Services Review. “The bottom-line of this work,” said Dr. Han, “is to highlight the challenges faced by our families in which parents hold precarious employment, jobs that are vulnerable during times of economic prosperity but especially so during times of economic and public health crises.”
NYU Silver recently spoke to Dr. Han and Mr. Hart, who is now a social worker at Mount Sinai’s Partial Hospitalization Program, about their collaboration on the study and the significance of what they found.
NYU Silver: Dr. Han, how did you choose Mr. Hart to work with you on this project?
Dr. Han: Jake volunteered himself. At the end of the Spring 2020 semester, after the Research Project Seminar was complete, Jake and I were talking about our plans for the summer and I mentioned this project. Jake said, “I would like to really help you with that any way I could,” and I said, “Yes I'm going to take your help.”
NYU Silver: Mr. Hart, Was this study, which required intensive quantitative analysis, very different from the independent research project you did in Dr. Han’s seminar? And what was your role in this study?
Mr. Hart: The content was different, absolutely, but the skills and the process I felt prepared for because of that class. Much like during the school year, Dr. Han helped me from beginning to end. We collaborated on the initial formulation of the questions and the tools that we would use, and I drew on my training and experience from my previous career as a 8th grade English teacher to really dive deep in the literature review. Dr. Han included me at every step of the way of this year-and-a-half marathon, from the research through the revisions and back-and-forth feedback and correspondence from the journals. I'm really grateful for that.
Dr. Han: I also want to add that this project would not be successful if not for Jake’s very extensive network. We were able to recruit 1,000 parents across the country in a very short period of time ‒ a historical record I would say ‒ because of Jake’s very proactive outreach to his network. That made this project possible and is also the reason we were able to get data and write papers right away, instead of having to wait for six months or a year.
NYU Silver: Was there anything that surprised you about your findings or was this basically a confirmation of what you anticipated when you began the study?
Mr. Hart: I think that one thing that really stands out to me is the significance of disempowerment and the impact of feeling unheard in the work environment, which may not be the characteristic of precarity that one would first think of first.
Dr. Han: I’d like to echo Jake’s point. The precarity scale developed by the European scholars allows us a peek into how some employees feel so disempowered and so voiceless. They have no way of really negotiating to have good benefits, to have good working conditions, so that’s also one thing I really appreciate.
However, this study is not so much about surprising results. It’s much more a reminder again of how our labor market in the United States has not been doing a good job of taking care of all of us. There are so many of us Americans who are suffering because the workplace environment hasn’t really allowed us to have a decent life, and that’s a sobering realization. We in the social work profession know this is how it is, but just seeing the data one more time reaffirming what we expected to see is very disheartening.
NYU Silver: In all of your papers based on the study you discuss the impact of job precarity on child well-being, even in those papers that aren’t explicitly about that association. Dr. Han, was that because you know from your years of prior research that U.S. workforce policies don't just affect parental employees’ well-being but the well-being of their children as well?
Dr. Han: Absolutely, and I think that's the difference between the social work profession and other social science disciplines. We are not just interested in asking the question. We want to know what it means once we get the results. How can that inform us of the kind of situations that help or hurt families and children so that we can see the way to address difficult circumstances? I know Jake has many good ideas about how to think through this issue.
Mr. Hart: Thank you, Dr. Han.I think what's cool about our collection of papers is that there is a combination of looking at the whole while also zooming in and looking at the individual parts, and I think that’s important during this pandemic. While much of our research and our papers focus on the economic impact in regards to the labor market and parental well-being, we can also see the intersection between remote learning and child well-being, and very much the evolving nature of all of these intersecting parts.
NYU Silver: Is it your plan to do further research on this topic?
Dr. Han: I do hope now that I’ve had a chance to use this precarious employment scale, I will have another chance to use it. In the meantime, I have been looking closely at large-scale US data sets I am familiar with that don’t collect extensive job precarity data and trying to make due with whatever indicators of job precarity they have. I recently published a paper using data from the “Early Childhood Longitudinal Study—Birth Cohort in the United States,” which found that children of parents with precarious employment are facing a significantly higher chance of falling into poverty during their developmentally critical first six years of life. What was really heartbreaking and disheartening was to find that almost half of children in that nationally representative sample of children born in 2000 were likely to experience poverty one way or the other before they go into kindergarten. So this says a lot about how we haven't done our jobs as a society to nurture these children.
These papers have come out as Congress has been considering President Biden’s Build Back Better bill, which really emphasizes the social safety net: providing income support, early education, health care, decent wages for all workers . . many of the things we are trying to advocate through our papers. So I feel like our papers are coming out in a very timely way that can have an impact. All the research has been pointing to these as important measures to give our children a fighting chance for a better future.
NYU Silver: And Mr. Hart, now that you’ve worked on this quantitative research project and co-authored four published papers, are you considering pursuing a PhD?
Mr. Hart: I think the jury is still out. I am definitely interested. It’s been an incredible experience to see these papers all the way through, to see how long the process is and how much work goes into it. When a paper is published, it feels like a tremendous accomplishment because of all the different steps involved. The quantitative analysis was something that I struggled with more in terms of skill level but I learned a lot in the process. I am still very much open and curious to learn more and see where things take me.
NYU Silver: Is there anything else either of you would like to share?
Dr. Han: What I appreciate from Jake is his heart. Our world is very much a better place because of his practitioner skills, the way he cares about the community, about the people he works with, and he brought that perspective to the research. Any good research paper is not just about quantitative skills, it has a lot to do with whether you can translate your research into a language that people can understand and apply in practice. Jake has that skill set and that is the bottom line of what social work research should be about.
Mr. Hart: I want everyone to know that it was such an honor and privilege to work with Dr. Han. I learned so much from her, and I recommend everyone to take her course. Being her student and then her colleague and co-author was an incredible experience.