Low-Wage Maternal Employment and Parenting Style

By Jackson, Aurora P.; Bentler, Peter M. et al. | Social Work, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Low-Wage Maternal Employment and Parenting Style


Jackson, Aurora P., Bentler, Peter M., Franke, Todd M., Social Work


The 1996 welfare reform law changed the main cash welfare program for poor, mostly single-mother families by mandating stricter work requirements and imposing a five-year lifetime limit on the receipt of benefits. As a consequence, large numbers of poor single mothers have left the welfare roles and entered the workforce. Results from studies of mothers leaving welfare for work suggest that participation in employment can be beneficial if income is adequate (Duncan & Chase-Lansdale, 2001; Morris, Huston, Duncan, Crosby, & Bos, 2001). This study used data gathered over three years from a sample of current and former single-mother welfare recipients in New York City to investigate whether increases in employment were associated with improved mental health and parenting outcomes over time. This is important because poverty and poor parental mental health are consistent risk factors for less optimal parenting and childhood disruptive behavior disorders (Garrett, Ng'andu, & Ferron, 1994; McLoyd, 1998; Weissman et al., 2006). Our study is restricted to single black mothers because they are disproportionately represented among the very poor and the welfare dependent (Duncan, 1991 ;Wilson, 1987, 1997).

MATERNAL EMPLOYMENT

In general, the research on maternal employment has focused either on middle-class married white families (for example, Desai, Chase-Lansdale, & Michael, 1989; Harvey, 1999) or, more recently, with respect to welfare recipients, on the effect of experimental employment programs and welfare reform demonstration projects on families and children (for example, Bos et al., 1999; Duncan, Dunifon, Doran, & Yeung, 2001; Gennetian & Miller, 2002; Huston et al., 2001). Concerning the former, the findings suggest that maternal employment has positive effects in families, especially when mothers want to be employed (see also, Hoffman & Youngblade, 1999; Jackson, 1993).

Regarding current and former welfare recipients, the findings suggest that there are positive effects on mothers and young children in programs that increase both employment and income (Bos et al., 1999; Gennetian & Miller, 2002; Huston et al., 2001), although studies comparing poor children in families receiving welfare and those in families not receiving welfare have found no differences (Duncan et al., 2001). Some suggest that leaving welfare is neither beneficial nor harmful for children (Kalil, Dunifon, & Danziger, 2001; see also, Chase-Lansdale et al., 2003). However, other research has found a negative relationship between welfare receipt and children's outcomes, controlling for income level (Haverman & Wolfe, 1995). Still others have found that the higher family incomes associated with maternal employment--even low-wage employment--can lead to improvements in children's well-being (Smith, Brooks-Gram, Klebanov, & Lee, 2000; Smith, Brooks-Gunn, Kohen, & McCarton, 2001).

Another line of inquiry has examined whether and how the working conditions of former welfare recipients influence maternal and child outcomes. One such study found that among former welfare recipients in an urban Michigan county, long working hours, erratic and irregular working schedules, and non-daytime shifts were not associated with negative behavioral outcomes for young children (Dunifon & Kalil, 2005). Others have suggested that negative associations between low-wage employment and maternal and child outcomes may occur when job quality is considered (Raver, 2003). Menaghan and Parcel (1995) used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth to examine this issue. Although less than a third of their sample was low-income and single (most were middle class and married), they found that among single mothers, the least adequate parents were those who were either not employed or who became employed in a low-wage job. Moss and Tilly (2001) found that wages often are an indicator of job quality, that undesirable aspects of jobs are, on average, offset by higher wages, and that low-income single women as a group have to do more paid work (that is, work longer hours) to sustain their families.

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