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Family Demographic Processes and In-Work Poverty: A Systematic Review

In a new study, published in Advances in Life Course Research, Nuffield College and LCDS DPhil student Antonino Polizzi, Emanuela Struffolino, and Nuffield College associate member Zachary Van Winkle systematically review 86 analyses on the associations between family demographic processes and in-work poverty in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and European Union (EU) countries.


The existence of employed individuals who live in households with incomes below the poverty threshold has been acknowledged as an important, and often growing, social issue in many rich countries.

In the EU, nearly 1 in 10 employed individuals aged 18–64 was at risk of poverty in 2019.

While the employment-related drivers of in-work poverty – low wages, irregular or precarious employment, low work intensity – are well-researched, the associations between in-work poverty and family demographic processes – parental home leaving, union formation, marriage, parenthood, union dissolution – have been made less explicit in previous studies, underlining the necessity for a systematic review of existing research findings.


According to the authors’ review, around 80% of in-work poverty analyses that included an indicator for parenthood reported that in-work poverty increases with children. In contrast, around 60% of analyses looking at union formation or marriage observed decreases in in-work poverty risk. Union dissolution is associated with a higher probability of in-work poverty. Only few analyses included an indicator for parental home leaving, precluding any robust conclusions about its association with in-work poverty.


Figure(above): Direction and statistical significance of associations between family demographic variables and in-work poverty risk in the selected analyses


The authors also study variation in the association between family demographic processes and in-work poverty by analysis characteristics, such as the sample size, the operationalization of family demographic variables, and the welfare state context under study. Moreover, they discuss the advantages and disadvantages of different methodological decisions when studying the association between family demographic variables and in-work poverty risk. Regarding the heterogeneity between analyses in operationalizing family demographic processes and in-work poverty, the authors consider ways to harmonize studies on in-work poverty in the future. For example, the reviewed studies vary with respect to the assessment of parenthood, with many studies using either a categorical or continuous variable to measure the number of children living in an individual’s household. Not only do these two approaches deliver different results, as highlighted by the authors, but both of them miss the dynamic nature of parenthood and its impact on employment and income, particularly among women. Thus, the authors suggest that household composition and parenthood dynamics, such as the recent birth of a child, should be included separately in the analysis, as the mechanisms linking these variables to in-work poverty risk may differ in important ways. Similarly, the authors note that few of the reviewed studies distinguish between married and non-married cohabitation, although these partnership statuses enjoy different economic privilege in different countries. Conversely, marital and non-marital partnership dissolutions may have different implications for individuals’ household income, as may higher-order unions and marriages as well as their dissolution.


Highlighting the importance of family demographic variables for in-work poverty risk, the authors conclude their study with the following statement:

“Future research on in-work poverty should […] better theorize the link between specific family demographic states or transitions and their relationship with in-work poverty. This is a challenging task as it requires researchers to specify how union formation, for example, affects both labor market supply and household income. However, thinking through the mechanisms will help identify selection processes and mediating mechanisms that build the relationship fertility, union dynamics, and parental home leaving have with in-work poverty. In addition, conceptualizing such a causal framework will highlight important moderating factors, such as gender and race.”


Antonino Polizzi (left).

The article, published in January 2022, arose from research funded by an Oxford/Berlin Research Partnership Seed Grant and currently features among Advances in Life Course Research’s “Most downloaded articles in the last 90 days” and “Articles from the last 3 years that have received the most social media attention”.


The article can be accessed through the journal website here.

Open access to the accepted manuscript is possible via SocArXiv here.

All data collected for the systematic review are available via the GESIS SowiDataNet-datorium here.


Citation: Polizzi, A., E. Struffolino and Z. Van Winkle. (2022). Family demographic processes and in-work poverty: A systematic review, Advances in Life Course Research, 52: 100462.



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