Gina Adams

Gina Adams

Q&A with Gina Adams

While instability is not a new idea, it has been getting traction in recent years as an important lens to use as we look at child and family well-being. We were fortunate to get support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to do some big exploratory thinking about the issue – trying to understand how it worked, what we needed to learn, what insights we could get to support action.  So our initial work really focused on trying to provide a big picture understanding of where we are with these questions, and to highlight what we need to do and learn.  It lays out as many questions as answers.

The framework we developed at the Urban Institute as the result of this project is that children and families all need a stabilizing web of support. As we think about what stabilizes children, you can see it as a set of intersecting supports.  For the child, it obviously includes the parents as well as other caring adults and places in their lives such as family and social networks, as well as child care and schools.  And parents can in turn be supported and stabilized by family, social and community networks, resources available to them through their workplace/employment, and the public safety net.  Having a strong web of support in all of these areas can provide a buffer against emergencies and times that are less stable for families. Each of these areas in a child or family’s life can buffer them from crisis and instability, and every aspect of this web of support is essential. The problem is that many children and families have major holes in their stabilizing web, making them much more vulnerable to instability and its negative outcomes.

One question we asked is whether there is any place that we should focus our attention in trying to prevent instability.  What we found is that instability can come from anywhere – your car breaking down, being expelled from school, a health crisis, etc.  We also found that all of the key elements of the web of stabilizing supports can actually be the cause of instability as well being the buffers.  Any sector that we look at can be the one that starts the dominoes falling, or can be the one that stops the cascade or that ameliorates the impact of the instability. For example, employers can be a cause of instability by having unpredictable work schedules. They can be a solution or buffer the impacts of instability by providing benefits like paid leave or access to health insurance.  Similarly, schools can exacerbate family instability by expelling a child who is acting out due to family trauma, or can help stabilize families by stepping in to mobilize emotional supports for that child. The public safety net can cause instability by reacting quickly to kick families off benefits when they experience a change or can help buffer the impact by ensuring that they retain benefits and supports through times of instability.  The good news is that every sector can do something. Every domain that touches parents and kids can be part of the solution – by looking to see how they contribute to destabilizing families and how they can work within and across their siloes to be a stabilizing part of that web.  We all have a role.

One of the interesting things is that instability isn’t inherently good or bad – it could be good change or bad change.  So we need to learn more about what kinds of instability are the most damaging, and what we can do to minimize the negative outcomes for kids. While there isn’t a lot of research on this, if you think about it intuitively, there are a lot of characteristics of stability that matter. Did you choose the change? Did you have time to prepare for it? Did it occur in one part of your life or several? Was it a one-time event or did it occur repeatedly over time? How did it affect a child’s relationship with their parents or their parent’s ability to be that primary buffer that children need? There are many factors!  And we need to learn more about which of these factors matter and for whom, and what we can do to minimize the negative impacts.

Another issue that seems likely to shape the impact of the instability on children in in HOW it affects the children.  As we’ve laid out in this initial exploratory work, there appear to be five ways that instability affects children:

  • Direct stress on the child, with the implications for toxic stress
  • Changes or threats to the parent-child relationship, which is obviously critically important to children’s well-being emotionally and physically and contribute to children’s stress
  • Change in routines, which can be remarkably destabilizing and stressful for children
  • Affecting access to basic resources such as food, housing, health care, which of course has direct impact on children’s well-being
  • Affecting the ability of others (individuals, communities, schools, public safety net etc.) to intervene or support the child, which can be seen (for example) in absenteeism in schools, losing informal support networks due to moves, churning in safety net programs, challenges maintaining medical treatments, etc.

While there is not a lot of research on this, it seems likely that the impact of instability on kids will also be affected by which of these pathways, and how many of them, are impacted.

So to put it simplistically, it seems likely that the impact of instability on children is likely to be related to its characteristics (i.e. if it’s a big change, if it’s a bad change, if there’s lots of it, etc) as well as to the particular pathways that it affects.  It also is related to the child and family’s characteristics, personality, and history.

But oddly, we don’t have as strong an evidence base for this as you might think because so much of the work on instability has been done within silos, or just looking at one or two changes… while in real people’s lives, instability takes place across areas of their lives and affects many of the stabilizing systems.  It requires a more holistic approach than has generally been taken.  There is more that we need to learn.

The research out there generally does not take this holistic perspective on the problem – as it generally has been within silos. So there is research, for example, showing which families do or don’t have access to individual parts of the web – such as face mental health challenges, or have/don’t have health insurance, or do or don’t have assets that they can tap into if they have a financial crisis.  But we generally don’t have a lot of research that takes a holistic perspective on this to see the extent to which families have access to these stabilizing supports overall.

That said, we clearly have some strong patterns within these various areas of research that allow us to make some educated guesses about what kinds of families do/don’t have access to stabilizing supports and/or buffers. For example, there is research on who has access to jobs with benefits, who has access to decent schools and child care, who has access to assets, and so forth.  Those allow us to get a sense of who is likely to be at risk… but we don’t know the extent to which they co-exist within particular families, and how they may intersect with individual characteristics such as mental health or disability. Or the extent to which families may have strengths in one part of their web that allows them to buffer the impact of instability in another area.  One of the important issues that became clear doing this work is that being at high risk of instability and having holes in your stabilizing web is not confined to poor people — think about the recent Federal Reserve Board’s finding that half of Americans don’t have quick access to $400 to meet an emergency.

I would love to do more research on who’s at risk. I’d love to be able to draw that holistic picture. There are big chunks of people that don’t have back-up systems and my guess is that it is not just who you think.  For example, while there are likely to be clear racial and ethnic patterns, I’m guessing that we would find interesting patterns for different employment characteristics (including those who are self-employed), as well as for families with disabilities, and other interesting slices.  Trying to map out who has what kinds of buffers and where the holes are would be very useful – both in terms of thinking about what that means for reframing and targeting our policy strategies, as well as in terms of potentially helping break down stereotypes of who is at risk and creating a more unifying picture.

There are two important links.

First, I think that historic and systemic inequities are directly related to which families have access to a strong stabilizing web, or have major gaps in that web.  Think, for example, just about the role of systemic racism in shaping who has access to capital and homeownership – buffers that play a major role for many families in dealing with financial crises.  There are similar issues in terms of inequities in access to public resources, good schools, etc. – issues that can play out across low-income communities, across racial and ethnic groups, across rural and urban. So clearly historic inequities have created major differences in who has stabilizing buffers.   And working to stabilize families is likely to mean taking steps to address these inequities of access to stabilizing supports.

And second, stabilizing families is an important precursor to being able to achieve a more equitable society.  Stability creates a foundation that families can push off from to move ahead. If your life is unstable, you can’t get the leverage you need — knowing your children are healthy and safe allows you to think about how to move up, having less stress allows your mind to function more effectively, having more stability allows you to, for example, go to work or classes and be more likely to succeed. So again, we need to address instability if we are to achieve greater equity and mobility.

Collective instability is a concept that we came up with to describe what happens when you are in a group—demographic, geographic, family—that faces a lot of instability or risk of instability. Even if you aren’t affected directly by the trauma or instability, you can be impacted by it because it surrounds you and makes you feel unstable. Children of immigrants in the current political context are a good example. Even if a child’s parents have not been deported, the fear of deportation affects the child, his peers, his school, his community. It is likely to affect his stress level, whether he goes to school, his school performance, and so forth.  You can see how this would also create problems for children living in communities plagued with chronic violence or who experience collective discrimination due to sexual orientation and identification (i.e. LGBTQ kids, etc), religious affiliation (i.e. being Muslim or Jewish), race and ethnicity, immigration status, and so forth.

This is an issue that deserves more exploration – we need to understand more about how this affects children, and what might be done to strengthen buffers for them.

There are a lot of policies that can prevent instability. I’ll start with a few of the big traditional safety net programs – Medicaid, food stamps, TANF, etc. Clearly the benefits themselves are important in stabilizing access to basic needs of health care and food.  However, the systems have not always been designed in ways that allow families to be able to count on the benefit.  There’s a lot of interesting work being done about how to simplify access, to make it less complicated to keep benefits, and to keep people from being thrown off benefits for administrative problems.  Policies that support access and minimize churning can make a big difference.

For example, in the federal/state child care child care subsidy program, it used to be that pretty much any change in a parent’s life had to be reported to the state—change in income, change in workplace, change in family composition, change in address, etc.  In many cases, the child care subsidy a parent received was affected and often lost. As a result, we had a situation where children’s average time on subsidy was only 3-6 months, which meant kids and families were churning in and out of the system… creating problems both for children in terms of continuity of care, and for their parents in terms of being able to get the child care they needed to work. But, when the program was reauthorized in 2014, they focused on stabilizing care for children, and now families are given assistance for a year. The system now isn’t responding such that the second you lose your job, you also lose child care. Now, we have time to try to stabilize families. Parents in job transition don’t need to be concerned about stability and continuity for their kids. This is an example of how safety nets can either work to destabilize families or can be fixed to be a stabilizing force.

We saw another example during Hurricane Harvey. After Harvey hit, families and communities were terribly disrupted and unstable. Schools in Houston decided to be a stabilizing factor and committed to reopen within two weeks after the storm, offered every child three meals for the rest of the year, supported parents, committed to mental health supports, and expanded a community schools concept that makes the schools a hub of support services for families. They also trained their teachers in detecting stress and trauma. In contrast, I was talking to a friend who lived in Biloxi when Katrina hit, and she told me about how schools were closed for a long time. Parents had to deal with their traumatized and stressed kids, who had no structure or familiar routines or anything to do, while trying to fit their lives back together.  You can imagine that the impact of the hurricane on children and families will be different for Harvey vs Katrina because of these different school responses.  Schools can be a safe, supportive place for children while families are dealing with instability or crisis.

It’s interesting.  On the one hand, this all sounds very complicated – intersecting sectors, stabilizing forces, etc.  On the other hand, when I talk to people about instability, and I talk about the web of support in human terms, they instantly get it. It is an easy concept. Everyone has had a personal experience – their own, or of a friend or family member – who had a crisis and crashed, or almost crashed, or would have crashed but were saved by one or two buffers… their savings account, a family member or friend, health insurance, a community service provider, an employer or whatever. On a basic human level, people get it.  Many people feel very close to the brink, and are scared.  There was that amazing Pew study that found that 92% of respondents said that financial stability was more important to them than moving up the income ladder.  This is not a concern that is limited to the poor… instead it is an issue that has the potential to build empathy and bridge differences, and to help us rethink who is at risk, who needs support, and what kind of support they need.  It could get us out of the “us versus them”, “poor vs non poor” polarized narrative that we currently face.

This is also an issue that is familiar and of concern to service providers and employers, as it affects their ability to do their job and use their resources effectively. Teachers know that kids miss school because mom had a mental health crisis or because the family was evicted. They know that instability affects their ability to teach a child and to teach their class. Job training providers can talk about the challenges of working with adults who can’t attend trainings due to family crises.  Medical staff know about the challenges of trying to work with families whose lives are too unstable to follow medical protocols or come to follow-up visits.  Employers see the impact of family instability on their bottom line because of missed work, turnover, and productivity.  So it is also an issue that is of direct concern to many sectors.

It is also promising because it doesn’t just focus on the public sector.  There is a role for the private sector, for community organizations, for the informal sector, for the faith community, etc.

So I think that instability has an unusual potential of bringing together people and opening up a different way to talk about supporting vulnerable families.  I don’t want to sound naive, it clearly isn’t easy.  But I do think that it is an exciting area that is worth exploration, particularly in this time of polarized dialogue and distrust of the public sector.

I think it could help with this problem, though we would need to think about messaging.  For example, much of the social focus on work is in part related to a misconception that if you work, you’re fine.  But that’s not really true – for some people, jobs make their instability worse, because they have no benefits, no leave, no insurance, and/or unstable work schedules. Work has a role as a supportive system, but there are a lot of people whose work doesn’t play that role. That’s not because they aren’t deserving. My job enables me to be a good parent because I am given time and flexibility.

Many of the buffers that each of us have really are not things that have to do with being deserving. Instead, the question is am I lucky enough to live in a community with resources? To have a school that wraps around supports? To have a job that provides stability?  To have been born into a family that accumulated assets so that I could have a buffer?   If we can lay out who has protections from instability and who doesn’t, and what those are, it might allow us to reframe the in ways that removes at least some of the blame.

While there is an important role for funders working within silos – for example taking this cross-sector view and thinking about the interconnections and changes that need to happen within their silo to help stabilize families (such as the child care reforms I mentioned a few minutes ago) — it is essential that we have cross-silo work in this area. I’m excited about the potential for the Roundtable to make a real contribution in this space.  Having people talk and work across silos is so critically important. Whether supporting action within a silo or across them, talking and learning across silos leads to wiser action that supports kids in a different way.

There are many steps that the leaders involved in the Roundtable can take together.  One step could be to apply the lens of instability to the work that you do individually and collectively – not only thinking about the role that your particular interest area can play in stabilizing families, but also how it connects to this larger web of supports and how your sectors or interest areas are part of a larger whole.


Taking this holistic view, it is important to focus on what we know and don’t know in terms of effective policies, service delivery, and research – and use philanthropy to strategically work to fill the gaps in our knowledge and leverage what we do know.  For example, it would be very helpful to look across disciplines and siloes to fill some of the gaps in our knowledge that I mentioned earlier, such as trying to pull apart what we know from different disciplines about what characteristics of instability make it damaging, or understanding which groups of children and families face different gaps (or have different strengths) in their web of supports.

Another approach is to focus on how these issues play out for a particular population or community who are at particular risk (both of which can root you in cross-sector complexity) – for example, by thinking about how to stabilize children of immigrants or in communities struggling with chronic violence — and considering the role of each sector separately and together in stabilizing children.  What do we know? What gaps exist because of the silo walls that we need to bridge?  Another example that we are starting to plan work on is on how to stabilize children affected by the opioid crisis. What are we doing to support kids who are losing their primary caregiver? Any individual child’s needs are extremely complex, as are the needs of the systems of support for that child – parents, grandparents, friends and community, foster care systems, schools, etc. What safety net programs play a role for that child? What challenges do these buffering systems face and what supports do they need to support the children?  What are we learning, and how can we share that information quickly across communities?


Another approach is to take a particular gap – for example, looking at how we measure instability and assess progress towards stability.  Currently, this landscape is very uneven.  There are some sectors that have thought about how to measure instability, like food insecurity and unemployment, but other sectors aren’t even close to having measurements, like child care. Some are making progress, like income and housing.  Mapping out this landscape and taking steps to fill the holes could be very helpful.

How different sectors talk about instability is very uneven, too. There’s exciting work in the research world from each sector, but we aren’t talking to each other.

Finally, I am convinced that there is much that we know but that we have not mined.  There are individuals who have spent their lives working to stabilize children – whether it be in the foster care system, through stabilizing families after natural disasters, through the military, through working with homeless families, etc.  They have a lot of lessons they have learned.  For example, the military deals with instability all the time – in a meeting we held a few years ago, we learned that the military has developed a system of medical passports to help families integrate into healthcare systems in new communities quicker. People have great ideas like this, but we haven’t found a way to share them. Using the instability lens, we can bring together these areas of expertise and tap into strategies, ideas, and actions that work. For example, disaster relief folks talk about how to stabilize kids, but how can we better integrate their discussions into other sectors?  What are social service providers on the front line doing to stabilize families so that they can benefit from services?  We know more than we think. We just haven’t been able to pull together this knowledge across issue siloes and share effectively yet. Some of the work now is to find out what we already know and disseminate it.

So there is a lot that the Roundtable community can do in breaking out of siloes – identifying gaps, identifying and disseminating promising strategies, bringing together people across sectors, thinking about messaging, and so forth.  It also can help take back information about the importance of this cross-sector lens to the other philanthropists in the different sectors.