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Quentin Riser on Family Income Instability and How it Might Affect Kids’ School Readiness

  • Quentin Riser
  • January 20 2022
  • PC107-2022

Quentin Riser
Quentin Riser

In this episode, we hear from Dr. Quentin Riser about how family income instability in early childhood affects children’s school readiness and later outcomes. He talks about how administrative data, such as in the Wisconsin Administrative Data Core, can offer a more complete picture of the financial ups and downs that young families face, and how that can matter for children later on in school.

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Dave Chancellor [00:00:03] Thanks for joining us for the Poverty Research and Policy Podcast from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I’m Dave Chancellor. Back in December, just before the holidays, I was able to sit down with Dr Quinte n Riser, who is a post-doc here at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and we were able to talk about his research looking at how family income instability in early childhood might affect school readiness and later outcomes for kids. And part of what makes his work so interesting is that he uses administrative data to help give us a real picture of the financial ups and downs of families with young children. And it allows him to look at how children in these families are actually doing in school later on. I hope you enjoy the conversation.

Dave Chancellor [00:00:49] First of all, thanks for being here. Can you just tell me about yourself, who are you? What do you study? What is kind of your role here at the University of Wisconsin–Madison? What are you doing?

Quentin Riser [00:01:00] I’m going riser and I’ve been a postdoctoral researcher here for close to a year now. I’m also a faculty affiliate in the Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work here at UW. And broadly speaking, my research really looks at how birth, child and family characteristics, you know, as well as how public policies shape child development, as well as the well-being of their families.

Dave Chancellor [00:01:24] So your research that we’re talking about today, I think it sets out to kind of help us better understand how children’s lives are affected by poverty they experienced on those really sort of developmentally important early childhood years. But you’re not just looking at poverty as a static thing is that is that about right?

Quentin Riser [00:01:43] Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. So really, I examine how children in their families may move in and out of poverty and how that impacts important outcomes. My focus on children’s earliest years is really premised on the idea that early childhood is a critical period, you know, from a variety of perspectives, whether academic or psychosocial, you know, neurobiological developmental researchers really converge on this idea. And that’s, you know, children’s brains are undergoing rapid growth and change and reorganization during this time. You know, so early childhood really, really is an optimal time to sort of cultivate early brain development. But where my research comes in is really when children experience early, you know, at birth or episodic children in and out of poverty or sustained, you know, children in urban poverty, from birth to kindergarten entry exposure to poverty, these experiences can adversely impact early brain development, and that sort of adversely impacted brain development might lead to school readiness or may negatively impact school writing skills downstream. And what we know from the literature is that there’s this well-established link between low family income during the earliest years of a child’s life and suboptimal school readiness skills, and we know about 23 percent of children in the United States live in poverty. We know less about early income and stability and its impact on child development, and I really began thinking about this question of of the impact of income and stability when I worked on a paper that was titled Multiple Risk, Multiple Systems and Academic Achievement. And in that study, we were able to harness nationally representative data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study birth cohort. And what we found was over 40 percent of children experience poverty exposure at least once before kindergarten entry. So when we looked at poverty exposure more broadly, when we when we looked at birth to kindergarten income histories, our data suggested really that poverty exposure was a much more common experience than the frequently cited one in five under six statistic might suggest. We found also that these children that experienced this 40 percent of children who experience poverty between person kindergarten entry were also more likely to experience suboptimal school readiness outcomes. So really, this this sort of set me on a path to think about the transient nature of poverty and the impact of income instability.

Dave Chancellor [00:04:26] I guess I’m hoping you can tell me more kind of about what we’re thinking about when we’re thinking about income instability or family income instability and particularly like what? What are some like maybe the possible storylines behind it? I mean, I know we think about things like job loss and other things that might change a family’s income, but why do researchers think this matters?

Quentin Riser [00:04:45] Sure. So, when I think of income or family income instability, I really think of it as a pattern of change in income. And these changes are often quite some of the examples you cited of an unpredictable nature. Some of the things that can lead to income instability or, you know, folks who contribute to the household income entering or exiting the household or an overreliance on short term or temporary or seasonal work or unexpected expenses that pop up like an expensive car repairs or medical expenses. And there’s evidence that indicates that there’s been an uptick in income and stability over the past few decades, making it a little bit more important. And researchers are finding that this income instability is associated with an array of important outcomes like marital hardship or adverse health outcomes, lower parenting quality and the list sort of goes on. So, researchers really think income instability matter. Because it’s negatively related to outcomes in an array of domains, given early childhood is is a time, you know, we’re family income levels fluctuate considerably, especially among those that are poor. And given that this is such a critical period, researchers are really increasingly focusing on what happens to young children when their family income fluctuates. And the thought here is that really, income instability may have real utility in explaining these diverging developmental trajectories.

Dave Chancellor [00:06:21] We’ve been talking about how early childhood is this really important time for children’s development. And for this research, if I have it right, I think you’re looking at school readiness as kind of a measure here. And so first of all, what is school readiness? And second, how does it help us kind of think about this link between early childhood and later outcomes?

Quentin Riser [00:06:42] Yeah, that’s a great question. It’s really important to define one’s term. So, we’re all sure we’re talking about the same thing. School readiness is really a multidimensional construct, and it’s comprised of a set of skills and behaviors that really depend upon one another. And these skills, when developed, they can increase proficiency when children enter school. And so, when I think of these skills and when school readiness researchers think of these skills, you know, we think of things like cognition or language development, social and emotional skills, physical well-being and motor development. So really, as a researcher who focuses on early childhood, I’d like to think everything between birth and school entry should work to cultivate these sorts of skills and then everything after school entry benefits and builds on the school readiness competencies. And this is really important because we know from the literature that kids that that haven’t mastered the school readiness skills primarily to for reasons having nothing to do with the kids themselves before they enter kindergarten, they can perform poorly when they enter school. Yes, but it doesn’t stop there. Such kids, you know, are also more likely to have educational and societal and economic challenges over the course of their lives, as you mentioned, suffered from unemployment or even depression as adults. And so really, it’s because of that compelling evidence linking school readiness to short term and later outcomes that early childhood researchers think what happens before school entry and how it how it shapes or begins to shape school readiness is a critical issue.

Dave Chancellor [00:08:30] It seems like it’s maybe not surprising that kids’ lives in early childhood are going to have a big impact on their later outcomes. But you’re really kind of trying to understand more about the how in the why of this right between this sort of association between family income instability and school readiness, is that is that a good way of putting this?

Quentin Riser [00:08:48] Yeah, yeah. I think I think that’s an I think that’s an accurate description. I’m really interested in the mechanisms through which changes in income and stability impacts, school readiness and then later development. What I mean, when I when I say that, you know, is what are the types of processes or decisions that income instability influences that might in turn impact developmental outcomes? So, so my approach to studying the associations between family income and stability and child development might be most clearly thought of as a series of dominoes. The first domino is income and stability. The second that I’m currently interested in exploring is best represented by two pathways. The first is psychological stress, and then economic investment would be the second and then the third. Domino and the final domino that I’m focusing on right now would be school readiness. And so I’m really interested in what happens after the first domino falls. So natural questions that that emerge follow the form A) does transitory household economic upheaval cause families to constrain resources and in doing so? You know, our families unable to provide, for example, cognitively stimulating materials in the house, reading materials on other things like that and without those materials. Children aren’t stimulated and don’t develop optimal school readiness skills. This sort of represents the economic investment pathway. And then alternatively, I can ask questions like does family income and stability lead to parental stress that leads to, you know, for instance, aloof parenting or inconsistent or harsh parenting that negatively influences school readiness skills downstream? And really, UW Madison is a good or maybe the best place to ask these types of questions because we house Wisconsin administrative data poor and we have quarterly wage records that allow me to get at entry year income changes. And we have DPI, Department of Public Instruction, records that allow me to look at some of these academic school readiness skills and such. And we have other features from other relevant data systems as well that really are fruitful to begin answering some of these questions.

Dave Chancellor [00:11:19] So it’s really interesting to hear you talk about all these sort of data sources that that you just mentioned, and you know, I’m guessing many people in our audience have heard of administrative data, but just in case, can you tell us what administrative data is and how researchers like you use it?

Quentin Riser [00:11:35] Yeah. So there’s a really good book called Actionable Intelligence Using Integrated Data Systems to Achieve a More Effective, Efficient and Ethical Government that listeners who want to learn more about administrative data and systems should pick up. John Fantuzzo, my academic grandfather authored the book, and my doctoral advisor, Heather Ross, was an author on the first chapter along with John. So administrative data and systems are really core to my scholarly DNA. But I love talking about administrative data. But administrative data are basically data that are collected by agencies for compliance or other purposes. And often these data systems exist in silos that don’t really talk to one another. So, yeah, vital statistics. And you have Department of Public Instruction, and they both exist, but they don’t really they’re never really connected. Now if if we can think carefully and creatively about how we clean and repurpose and linked data from some of these different agencies, well, then we have a powerful tool for generating insights that may influence policy and decision making. So to answer part of your question about how researchers use it, I think a substantial fraction of researchers that that harness administrative data. They’re really interested in evaluating policies or conducting research that will inform policy or practice. So I personally was on a team that leverages administrative data in tandem with and this is one part about administrative data work in tandem with partners from early childhood Iowa to better understand early childhood service use and to better understand the early childhood workforce. And I’ve seen others that have used administrative data to better understand families experiencing housing instability and homelessness, or to better understand trends in opioid related overdose and death. And currently, I’m really interested again using administrative data in Wisconsin to look at how income instability and school readiness are linked and the mechanisms that might link income instability and school readiness.

Dave Chancellor [00:13:47] I want to just hear a little bit about what you’ve learned so far in doing this work. What are some of the takeaways early on that you’ve seen and what do you kind of looking towards here?

Quentin Riser [00:13:58] Yeah. So what I’ve learned in exploring this using nationally representative secondary data with a low to moderate income sample of children is that most children, around sixty seven percent of children have a right, around a hundred percent of the federal poverty level, from birth to kindergarten entry. And interestingly, 55 percent of these children move in and out of poverty from birth to kindergarten entry. And these children are more likely to display poor outcomes than their counterparts, also in other trajectories. And so that would be an upward trending downward trending with initially adequate income and a stable adequate income trajectory, I found similar patterns of fluctuations above and below relevant policy thresholds, and this is important because programs like Medicaid and CHIP and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Head Start as examples use these types of thresholds to determine who’s eligible for their programs. And so that’s some of what I’ve learned so far. And that’s not using the administrative data. But now what I hope to learn using administrative data is whether economic investment in psychological stress or mediators that link these sort of early income instability, patterns to school readiness and how these early skills then impact children’s health and well-being from early childhood all the way into adulthood in terms of outcomes like education or employment, income level and then stability when those children become adults, as well as health so both physical and mental health outcomes as well.

Dave Chancellor [00:15:52] So if research like this is able to show kind of a real association between income instability and in children, school readiness and some of these factors that we really care about here, you know what, what questions might that raise for policymakers and you know, the way that they think about supporting families with young children, especially?

Quentin Riser [00:16:11] Yeah, I think this work might raise questions like. Are policies that smooth family consumption during downpours or income shocks? Prudent, given the impact of income and stability on important outcomes, I think it raises questions like does insurance policy and program eligibility thresholds are flexible, makes sense, you know, so. So income gains and subsequent loss of benefits don’t perpetuate income instability. I think it raises questions like do we need to attend to not just the well-being and development of the child, but to their mothers and their families as well by improving and expanding dual generation programing. Congress is currently debating the build back better agenda, and they’re considering extending the American Rescue Plan’s expansion of the child tax credit provide monthly payments to most American children, and supposing such a policy reduces income and stability, and though not exactly the same mechanism normal. The Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, for example, offers evidence of such a link between guaranteed income and a reduction in income volatility. Empirical evidence from my work linking income and stability in child development would be useful in arguments in favor of such a program. My work also raises questions such as whether programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program should have, as stated program goals, you know, an attempt to reduce income instability, as well as its consequences.

Dave Chancellor [00:18:01] Thanks for that and Quentin, as we’re signing off here, what do you want to leave us with? What’s the takeaway that you’re seeing in this work and in some of the recurring themes that you think really matter that we should be paying attention to?

Quentin Riser [00:18:13] I think the first thing that comes to mind is poverty exposure for young children is much more of a common experience than we would probably like to think. And then that poverty exposure has real consequences in terms of school readiness, and we know that suboptimal operating a skills lead to suboptimal outcomes downstream and those are costly economically, socially. And so I think what I would like to leave everyone with is early childhood is really an important period to invest in children because if we can invest in children early on, we will, as a society, begin to reap those returns tenfold 20 fold.

Dave Chancellor [00:18:55] Thanks again to Dr. Quinten Riser for taking the time to talk about this work with us. The production of this podcast was supported in part by funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. But its contents don’t necessarily represent the opinions or policies of that office, any other agency, the federal government or the Institute for Research on Poverty. Music for the episode is by Martin de Boer. Thanks for listening. 



Child Development & Well-Being, Child Poverty, Children, Early Childhood Care & Education, Economic Support, Economic Support General, Education & Training, Employment, Family & Partnering, Family & Partnering General, Inequality & Mobility, Inequality & Mobility General, K-12 Education, Labor Market, Low-Wage Work, Unemployment/Nonemployment, WI Administrative Data Core