Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. General Population Studies


Three of the data sets are ongoing, general population studies that are widely known and have been analyzed for a variety of research purposes. Two, the NLS and the PSID, are national, longitudinal studies, and the other is a large, national cross-sectional survey of families, NSAF. The three national data sets identified have potential for informing the efforts to conceptualize a typology of homeless families. In the following section, each study is described in detail and information on the structure, content, and strengths of the data set is further outlined in an accompanying table.

National Longitudinal Survey of Labor Market Experiences (NLS). The NLS (see Table 4-3) is a series of longitudinal cohort studies. Four initial cohorts were selected in the mid-1960s, including samples of both young and mature men and women. Tracking of the two male cohorts was stopped in the early 1990s, while the two groups of women continue to be monitored. Tracking began of another cohort of 12,686 youth between the ages of 14 and 22 in 1979 (NLS79). Annual surveys of this cohort were conducted for the next 25 years and, since that time (1994), biennial surveys have been conducted. In 1986, surveys were begun with children from the NLS79 cohort. Information was initially collected on these children in 1986 and has been biennially updated since 1988. A sixth cohort NLSY97 sample of 9,000 youths who were 12 to 16 years of age as of December 31, 1996, has been tracked annually since 1997.

Table 4-3. National Longitudinal Survey of Labor Market Experience (NLS79)
Sample Nationally representative sample of youths who were 14 to 22 years old in 1979
Size 12,686 youths
Timeframe First interviewed in 1979. Interviewed annually through 1994 and biennially since then.
Housing/homelessness Information collected on current residence and on moves since the previous interview. Homelessness (e.g., living on the streets or in a shelter) is not recorded
Specific housing questions
  • What is the address of your current residence?
  • What type of living quarters? (Answer choice- Other- Temporary individual quarters)
Demographics Work history, education, high school transcript, income and assets
Family Marital status event history, child births, and family composition
Service needs Health conditions, alcohol and substance abuse, insurance coverage
Agency/service involvement Event histories of participation in government programs such as unemployment insurance and AFDC
Strengths for typology — Knowledge gaps answered
Geographic coverage Yes, large, national representative sample
Population coverage
(Broader than homeless)
Subgroups available Yes, to identify those at risk, provides ability to examine role of risk factors and protective factors as they relate to housing stability, work, and family
Prevention/intervention services
(agency involvement)
Yes, data on government programs, including housing subsidies
Data on children Yes, limited data on children of NLS79 cohort's mothers
Weaknesses Possibly biased sample if did not successfully track those who became homeless; does not collect any information on homelessness
Conclusion Cannot be used for typology — no information on homelessness

The four initial cohorts are unlikely to yield information relevant to family homelessness. By the time this topic began to emerge as a national issue in the mid-1980s, most of the original 1966 and 1967 samples were too old to have young children and less likely to have been at risk of homelessness. Conversely, the latest cohort, the NLSY97 sample, is just beginning to reach the prime age for entering homelessness as families. Data available on this cohort, however, exist only through 2000, when most of the youth in the sample had not yet reached their 20s. This data set, because it specifically collects information on whether a respondent was living in a shelter or on the street, may be important to examine in the future.

Only the NLSY79 sample is likely to have experienced homelessness, with the group entering their 20s during the mid-1980s. A review of the data set revealed that, in addition to labor force behavior, information has been collected on a wide range of key domains, such as welfare receipt, educational attainment, income, health conditions, alcohol and substance abuse, family histories, and residential history. Contacts with individuals at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicated that the NLS does not provide any measure of homelessness, though the database is built on panel surveys that track living arrangements over time. At this time, only the addresses, not types of location, are coded. Thus, a shelter cannot be distinguished from a stable living arrangement. In addition, even if the type of location could be discerned, it is likely that because of the difficulty in locating homeless people for followup interviews, individuals who are not stably housed would be underrepresented.

If coding of homelessness and precariously housed arrangements did exist in a reliable and valid fashion, a reanalysis of this data set could make an important contribution to understanding the dynamics of residential instability from early adulthood on and the role that labor force involvement, welfare, and some basic health issues play in these dynamics. The size, scope, and longitudinal nature of the data set would amplify its potential importance for the efforts as long as there could be some determination of the representativeness of the study sample with respect to unstable families. As it currently stands, however, the NLS does not provide this information.

Panel Survey of Income Dynamics (PSID). The PSID (see Table 4-4) is a nationally representative, longitudinal study that began in 1968. The initial PSID study consisted of two independent samples: a cross-sectional national sample of approximately 3,000 families and a national sample of 2,000 low-income families. From 1968 to 1996, individuals from these families were interviewed annually, whether or not they were living in the same dwelling unit or with the same people. As a result of both low attrition of the original sample and additional followups of the children as they formed their own families, the PSID grew to a size of more than 65,000 individuals, clustered into families branching off from the original family sample. To keep the PSID sample representative of the U.S. population, adjustments were made in 1997 that reduced the number of core families and added a refresher sample of post-1968 immigrant families, particularly Latino and Asian households.

Table 4-4. Program Survey of Income Dynamics (PSID)
Sample Representative, national sample of families, including a national sample of low-income families in 1968, refreshed in 1997
Size Initial sample of 4,800 families, grown to 7,100 by 2001, with data on over 65,000 individuals
Timeframe First survey conducted in 1968, annual surveys administered until 1997, starting in 1999 surveys administered biennially
Housing/homelessness Residential followback calendar for all places lived in during the previous 2 years; however, homeless not directly coded
Specific housing questions
  • Asks for a residential follow-back calendar of all places lived during the previous 2 years (lists addresses).
  • Is this house in a public housing project; that is, is it owned by a local housing authority or other public agency?
  • Are you paying no rent because the government is paying all of it?
Demographics Education, ethnicity, religion, military service, parents' education, occupation, poverty status, income
Family Family composition and changes
Service needs Physical health, emotional distress
Agency/service involvement Public assistance in the form of food or housing
Strengths for typology — Knowledge gaps answered
Geographic coverage Yes, large nationally representative sample
Population coverage
(Broader than homeless)
Yes, with a subsample of low-income individuals from 1997
Subgroups available Yes, provides ability to examine role of risk and protective factors as they relate to housing, family, and employment for those at-risk for homelessness.
Prevention/intervention services
(agency involvement)
Yes, housing and food public assistance
Data on children Limited
Weaknesses Does not collect any information on homelessness
Conclusion Cannot be used for typology — no information on homelessness

The PSID collects information on a broad range of core topics, including income sources and amounts, poverty status, public assistance, marital status, childbirth, employment status, military service, and health. Supplemental questions also have been added to various waves of the PSID. For example, various types of health questions have been included in several different years. Retrospective questions also have been asked to clarify relationships between people identified in the early years of the PSID and to obtain more detailed work histories from participants.

The PSID collects housing and mobility information but does not include homelessness as a specific location. For example, it obtains information such as when and why people have moved, whether they own or rent, and how much they pay for housing. It is possible that homelessness or other information related to homelessness is collected but coded as other.

A potential strength of the PSID for this effort is oversampling of low-income families. However, because the percentage of families that experience long-term poverty is fortunately relatively small, the number of families experiencing long-term poverty in the PSID is not large (Gottschalk and Ruggles, 1994).

National Survey of America's Families (NSAF). The NSAF (see Table 4-5), consists of representative cross-sectional samples of the civilian, noninstitutionalized population under the age of 65, and was designed to gather data on economic, social, and health characteristics of families and children. Individuals were contacted through either random-digit dialing (RDD) or, for households without a telephone, face to face. The NSAF is a national sample, but it oversamples 13 states to provide more accurate state-level numbers. The survey was administered to 44,461 households in 1997, 46,000 households in 1999, and 43,157 households in 2002.

The NSAF provides a rich data set on both parents and children. In households with children, up to two children were randomly sampled, one child under the age of 6, and another child between the ages of 6 and 17. Information on children in the household was gathered by asking questions of the adult with the most knowledge regarding the children's education and health care. The NSAF contains information on a range of domains, including employment, welfare receipt, social relationships, and emotional and physical well-being and provides child-level data on social, emotional, behavioral outcomes, mental and physical health outcomes, and academic outcomes.

Another potential strength of the NSAF is that, although the homeless population is not specifically surveyed, the three administered surveys focus on housing and economic hardship variables. The survey includes questions that identify families who were forced to live with other families because of the inability to pay the monthly mortgage, rent, or utilities. Additional questions that capture families at risk for homelessness identify the use of emergency food banks and the inability to pay monthly rent. The NSAF would, therefore, provide a rich data set to measure families who are doubled-up and provide valuable information to identify those at risk for homelessness. A potential limitation of the NSAF is that the cross-sectional design would not provide information on the same families across points in time.

Table 4-5. National Survey of America's Families (NSAF)
Sample Representative sample of the civilian, noninstitutionalized population under the age of 65, oversampling people with low incomes
Size 44,460 households surveyed in 1997; 46,000 households surveyed in 1999; approximately 40,000 households surveyed in 2002
Timeframe Cross-sectional design, surveys conducted in 1997, 1999, and 2002
Housing/homelessness Asks if family had to move in with another family because of inability to pay mortgage, rent, or utility bills (doubled-up population identifier)
Specific housing questions
  • How much paid for rent?
  • Are you and your family paying lower rent because the Federal, state, or local government is paying part of the rent?
  • During the last 12 months, did anyone move into your home even for a little while because they could not afford their own place to live or because their parents could not support them?
  • During the past 12 months, was there a time when you and your family were not able to pay your mortgage, rent, or utility bills?
Demographics Gender, education, employment, ethnicity
Family Births/pregnancies, parent-child interactions, family formation, and stability/living arrangements
Service needs Adult health, physical, and emotional well-being, children’s mental/physical heath
Agency/service involvement Welfare, mental health services, medical services
Strengths for typology — Knowledge gaps answered
Geographic coverage Yes, three very large, national representative samples
Population coverage
(Broader than homeless)
Yes, oversamples low-income individuals
Subgroups available Yes, provides ability to examine role of risk and protective factors as they relate to housing, family, and employment for those at risk for homelessness. Provides ability to track the hardships families face, the role of welfare and other services in affecting the course of the hardships, and the role of family interactions and stability as both factors in shaping hardships and buffering hardships
Prevention/intervention services (agency involvement) Yes, housing and food public assistance
Data on children Yes, child-level data collected
Weaknesses Does not collect any information on homelessness
Conclusion The data set may provide valuable information on those doubled-up and at risk for homelessness.

At this point, the specific size of the doubled-up population has not been identified; however, interim analytical findings suggest that 3 in 10 low-income families answered that they were unable to pay for a month's rent, utility bills, or mortgage payment and nearly half of the low-income families reported food affordability problems (Nelson, 2004). These findings suggest that an ample-sized, at-risk population exists and should be further examined on all variables.

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