For People Living “Overdraft to Overdraft,” Social Support Can Make a Difference
Over half of all Americans are struggling financially. A 2019 survey found that 59 percent of U.S. adults live paycheck to paycheck. Furthermore, in 2019, CNBC reported that about a quarter of U.S. adults “would have to borrow or sell something” to cover $400 in an emergency, and 12 percent would not be able to cover it at all. Overall, there are multiple reports showing that millions of Americans struggle financially and lack savings, which can impede future mobility by making it more difficult to get additional education or make a career change.
A 2019 survey found that 59 percent of U.S. adults live paycheck to paycheck. When people are struggling to make ends meet, they may also struggle to make decisions.
When people are struggling to make ends meet, they may also struggle to make decisions. In a new article published in the Journal of Applied Communication Research, an NCA journal, Angela N. Gist-Mackey and Anthony Guy examine how social support systems can help individuals living in financial precarity to make difficult decisions. Gist-Mackey and Guy collaborated with United Community Services (UCS) of Johnson County in Kansas for the study. UCS works with community organizations to plan and deliver health and human services but does not offer services directly to the public.
Gist-Mackey and Guy define financial precarity as “insecure, unstable financial/economic circumstance characterized by uncertainty, change, and other at-will interdependent factors that are inside and/or outside of an individual’s control.” This means that people can enter unstable financial situations because of sudden unemployment or unexpected expenses, such as those arising from a medical emergency. Precarious work conditions, such as a low-wage job or migrant work, can also lead to financial precarity. When individuals are in a precarious financial situation, the lack of security can lead to a downward spiral. For example, someone might become sick, which leads to both medical bills and the inability to work, and that can lead to downward spiral where they are unable to make ends meet. For the purposes of the study, Gist-Mackey and Guy operationalized financial precarity as at or below 200 percent of the 2016 Federal Poverty Level, which includes “a single person earning $23,760 or less to a family of four earning $48,600 or less.”
One factor that can help prevent a downward spiral is social support. Social support occurs when others, such as friends or family, help people in need. Social support comes in four forms: informational, emotional, appraisal, and instrumental. Informational support occurs when someone provides information that can lead to reduced stress. Emotional support happens when someone expresses love, trust, concern, or feelings of care toward someone who needs help, which shows that that person is valued. Instrumental support refers to financial or physical support; Gist-Mackey and Guy were particularly interested in this kind of support. Although appraisal is another kind of social support, it was not referenced by any of the participants in this study.
For the study, Gist-Mackey and Guy interviewed participants in focus groups. The focus groups engaged in open-ended discussion of the struggles they faced with (un)employment and their social and financial support systems. The focus groups revealed that decisions were often made in the context of uncertainty, urgency, complexity, and risk.
Uncertainty and complexity often occurred simultaneously at moments of decision-making. The complexity of decisions led to multiple questions, which led to uncertainty because people lacked the information they needed to address the complex decision. For example, one participant who wanted to change their career from hair stylist to real estate or sales asked numerous questions about the decision, demonstrating both uncertainty and complexity: “I really have not planned to change my career until recently, and so now I’m just trying to plan everything out accordingly. Um, when am I going to be able to get the classes? Who’s gonna watch my children?” In this case, the participant also had children, which affected their ability to plan a career change.
There was often a sense of urgency around decision-making; participants needed to address their “most pressing needs first” because of their financial precarity. Some participants described living paycheck to paycheck or even “overdraft to overdraft.” One participant, a former bilingual translation specialist, had a conviction record and needed to find housing to leave a house arrest facility. This context led to a sense of urgency: “There’s some housing that doesn’t like you to be able to get homes if you’re a felon. Or if you have prior evictions and things like that…And if you have an eviction and you’re trying to change your life and attend to your own home. How are you going to do that if you don’t get a chance to?” This participant faced the dual stigmas of seeking employment with a criminal history and of being unemployed.
Risk refers to making decisions that may threaten future well-being. Risk permeated both decision-making contexts described above. In the first scenario, the participant risked not being able to provide for their children. In the second, the participant risked a parole violation without suitable housing and employment.
Gist-Mackey and Guy identified two main themes from focus groups discussions. The first theme was weak support systems and “no-win” decisions. The second theme was social support that made a difference in decision-making.
Some participants lacked social support and faced “no-win” decisions. In these cases, participants reported that they were unable to seek social support from friends and family, sometimes “because of the possible backlash, judgment, or rejection they might incur.” Lack of social support could lead to making decisions that threatened future well-being. One participant reported selling illegal substances to make ends meet, which led to a felony that threatened their future financial well-being.
For some participants, social support made a difference in decision-making. In these cases, participants’ friends, family, or even supervisors intervened in a decision-making process, which resulted in a better outcome. For example, one participant was an audio producer. When they were facing personal problems, their supervisor offered them both emotional and instrumental support: “He’s like ‘I will not fire you. I want you to be okay. I’m here for you. Just be at work on time and don’t do anything stupid and make sure everything’s okay.’” In this case, instrumental support was continued employment, and emotional support was the assurance that their supervisor wanted them “to be okay.”
Overall, Gist-Mackey and Guy found that participants who lacked social support systems struggled to make challenging decisions and sometimes resorted to decisions out of desperation that negatively affected their financial well-being, such as selling illegal substances. Social support led to stability that helped individuals endure tough financial situations. Gist-Mackey and Guy argue that increased government support for human service occupations would allow human service organizations to offer better support for people facing tough financial decisions.