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For People Living “Overdraft to Overdraft,” Social Support Can Make a Difference

September 9, 2019
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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. 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.

Financial precarity is an “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.” For example, someone might become sick, which leads to medical bills and the inability to work, and that can lead to a downward spiral.

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. 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. Instrumental support refers to financial or physical support. Although appraisal is another kind of social support, it was not found in the data for 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.

Gist-Mackey and Guy identified two main themes from focus groups discussions. The first theme emerged from people who had weak support systems and faced “no-win” decisions. The second theme emerged from people for whom social support 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. Lack of social support can lead to making decisions that threaten future well-being, such as resorting to selling illegal substances to make ends meet.

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. For example, one participant’s supervisor offered instrumental support through continued employment and emotional support through the assurance that the supervisor wanted them “to be okay.”

Gist-Mackey and Guy found that participants who lacked social support systems struggled to make challenging decisions. Social support led to stability that helped individuals endure tough financial situations. Gist-Mackey and Guy argue that increased government support would allow human service organizations to offer better support for people facing tough decisions.


Read the full article online here.

To arrange an interview with the study authors, contact Grace Hébert at or 202-534-1104.

About the National Communication Association

The National Communication Association (NCA) advances Communication as the discipline that studies all forms, modes, media, and consequences of communication through humanistic, social scientific, and aesthetic inquiry. NCA serves the scholars, teachers, and practitioners who are its members by enabling and supporting their professional interests in research and teaching. Dedicated to fostering and promoting free and ethical communication, NCA promotes the widespread appreciation of the importance of communication in public and private life, the application of competent communication to improve the quality of human life and relationships, and the use of knowledge about communication to solve human problems. NCA supports inclusiveness and diversity among our faculties, within our membership, in the workplace, and in the classroom; NCA supports and promotes policies that fairly encourage this diversity and inclusion.

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