Overdue: Low-Income Debt, Child Poverty, and Family Stress in the United States


Dr. Rachel Dwyer, Department of Sociology
Rank at time of award: Associate Professor


Does increasing indebtedness in the United States contribute to child poverty, increased child and family stress, worsened health problems, and reduced family functioning? Which types of debt are most damaging to child health and family stability? Do some forms of credit access instead reduce stress and improve family functioning? These questions have become more pressing as evidence mounts that poor families face increasing sources of damaging debts. However, there is limited and scattered evidence of debt among poor families, in part because social surveys collect little data on indebtedness and the data that do exist concentrated mainly on the forms of credit and debt most often encountered by middle class and affluent families. I propose a set of preliminary analyses in this seed grant to support a large, multi-pronged data collection and analyses effort to: 1) track the sources and levels of debt among poor and near-poor families in the United States; 2) build data infrastructure to support high-quality demographic analysis of debt among poor US families; 3) understand the pathways that link indebtedness to child poverty, stress and health problems, and family functioning; and 4) identify promising policy levers for reducing the negative impacts of debt on poor children and families.
Debt is crucial to family economic functioning and is a key source of stress that affects parenting and family relationships. Yet we know far too little about debt overall and in particular the types of debts most typically carried by low-income families. Social surveys tend to collect the types of debts most likely to be held by middle class and affluent families, such as mortgages and student loans, while providing scant information about the past due bills, court fines, and child support debts that are more common among poor and low-income families. Detailed credit history data that provide more information on the full range of debts are available only in aggregate forms. In this seed grant, I will undertake a comprehensive analysis of existing data on debt among low-income populations in social surveys.