What makes a job good for workers—and families?

Lessons from the Good Jobs Summit
Published: 07.06.2022 Updated: 07.25.2022

The hardships that the last two years have brought to many families underscores the need to build an equitable economy. The pandemic’s enormous labor market upheaval, starting with massive unemployment and industry-wide shutdowns, has given way to a renewed focus on job quality—and the ways in which it is unevenly distributed. While nearly all families experienced disruptions tied to work, some families, for example low-income immigrants, have been more vulnerable to the health and economic crises because they have jobs with few protections, even when they perform essential and front-line work.

Now, policymakers and analysts are facing questions about what defines a “good job.” An equitable recovery will depend upon agreeing on this definition; developing measurable indicators of access to good jobs; monitoring which workers have and do not have these jobs; and evaluating whether jobs support families. Strong worker- and family-supportive policies can stem from this progress. 

An important first step from the Departments of Labor and Commerce

Last month at the Good Jobs Summit, hosted by the Department of Labor in collaboration with the Families and Workers Fund, the Departments of Commerce and Labor released a set of Good Jobs Principles that provide a sound foundation for this work. Beyond adequate pay, these principles include: recruitment and hiring; benefits; diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility; empowerment and representation; job security and working conditions; organizational culture; and skills and career advancements.

At diversitydatakids.org, we are pleased that this comprehensive set of principles acknowledges the need for living wages and family-sustaining benefits like paid leave and caregiving supports. This recognition is important because employment is the main source of resources families have to invest in their children: on average, 75% of household income comes from wages. Earnings and employer-provided benefits also directly support children by providing access to health care, savings plans and paid leave.

Unfortunately, differences in earnings often mirror inequities in access to these family-supportive benefits. Black and Hispanic workers are less likely to have access to these benefits, such as family and medical leave and affordable child care, that can supplement poor job quality. As a result, inequitable job quality contributes to uneven child opportunity and can exacerbate racial/ethnic inequities.

As long as jobs are a key source of family resources, conversations around “good jobs” must include a job’s ability to provide a whole family with economic security. The same is true for conversations on alleviating child poverty; they must include policy options to increase and equitably distribute good jobs.

Measuring job quality—and filling in the gaps

Building on the Good Jobs summit, the next step toward equitable good jobs is to improve data collection and improve the measurement of job quality in government surveys and administrative data. Current federal data measure wages, hours and certain benefits, with occasional supplements that capture other aspects of job quality such as nonstandard schedules.  

But some principles—like predictable scheduling, quality of nonwage benefits, organizational culture, skills and career advancement—are rarely measured at all. These data shortcomings hamper our progress in understanding job quality and how it relates to worker, family and child outcomes. We believe these characteristics constitute a fundamental part of what makes a job “good” for workers and families. For example, a predictable work schedule is key to securing regular child care. Measuring and including these metrics in job quality discussions will help lead to a more equitable economy.

It is also essential to measure inequities by race/ethnicity and nativity in families’ access to quality jobs. Decades after racially discriminatory practices were outlawed, immigrant, Hispanic and Black working parents are still significantly more likely than nonimmigrant, White and Asian working parents to have a job that pays below the basic economic security wage, does not offer health insurance and does not offer a retirement plan.

Without efforts to intentionally increase parents’ access to good jobs, inequities in access to opportunities for children by race/ethnicity and nativity will likely persist.

We need to think of job quality as a family resource, not an individual resource, and accordingly develop family-level measures that include the earnings, benefits, schedules, availability to provide childcare and working conditions of multiple workers. Measuring job quality for families means capturing the full set of resources families have to meet basic living standards, as well as the impact poor working conditions have on workers’ and children’s wellbeing and health. This in turn will help us understand the public resources needed to fill gaps between families’ needs and the resources their jobs provide.

In an upcoming issue of RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences on policies to support low-income families, we present a comprehensive picture of differences in job quality by income, race/ethnicity and nativity. We evaluate families’ access to two components of good jobs principles (family-sustaining pay and the core benefits of health insurance and retirement) by considering the jobs of up to two adults in a family, rather than only one working parent.

Headshot of Abigail Walters
Abigail N. Walters
Research Associate
Headshot of Pamela Joshi
Pamela Joshi
Policy Research Director
Headshot of Leah Shafer
Leah Shafer
Senior Communications Specialist
Headshot of Dolores Acevedo-Garcia
Dolores Acevedo-Garcia
Director, Professor of Human Development and Social Policy