Contemporary Work and Family Issues Affecting Marriage and Cohabitation among Low-Income Single Mothers

By Joshi, Pamela; Quane, James M. et al. | Family Relations, December 2009 | Go to article overview
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Contemporary Work and Family Issues Affecting Marriage and Cohabitation among Low-Income Single Mothers


Joshi, Pamela, Quane, James M., Cherlin, Andrew J., Family Relations


In this paper, we advance and test an integrative model of the effects of employment status, nonstandard work schedules, male employment, and women's perceptions of economic instability on union formation among low-income single mothers. On the basis of the longitudinal data from 1,299 low-income mothers from the Three-City Welfare Study, results indicate that employment status alone is not significantly associated with whether women marry or cohabit. Rather, we find that nonemployed mothers and mothers working nonstandard schedules were less likely to marry compared to those working standard schedules. Mothers' perceptions of economic well-being were associated with marriage at Wave 2. In contrast, cohabitation outcomes were not explained by economic factors, but were related to the perception of child care support. The policy implications of these results are discussed, in particular, as they relate to welfare reform's work and family goals.

Key Words: cohabitation, economic stability, marriage, nonstandard work schedules, welfare/welfare reform, work and families.

Enacted in 1996, welfare reform policy focused on changing both work and family formation patterns among low-income single mothers. With the employment focus mandated by welfareto-work reforms and strong job growth during policy implementation, in the past decade alone, single mothers increased their labor market participation and many transitioned off from welfare and into low-wage jobs (Acs & Loprest, 2007). In 2006, when welfare policy was reauthorized, family formation goals were emphasized and funding was made available to encourage states and localities to develop voluntary healthy marriage education programs targeted primarily toward low-income families. Because the dramatic employment shifts among low-income single mothers occurred prior to the implementation of most healthy marri-age programs, an important empirical question arises regarding the extent to which single mothers' increased participation in the low-wage labor market impacted family formation deci-sions. From a policy perspective, understanding whether increasing employment among single mothers helped to achieve or undermine family formation goals is central to informing the design of future welfare reform policies. Unfortunately, our understanding of this association is limited.

In this study, we explored the link between low-income mothers' employment characteristics and union formation by advancing a theoretically informed conceptual model that encompasses contemporary work characteristics and caregiving responsibilities of low-income women. Using a representative longitudinal sample of caregivers and their children aged 0-4 and 10-14 living in poor and near-poor neighborhoods in three urban cities in the United States (Winston et al., 1 999), we extended existing studies on union formation of single mothers by moving beyond a consideration of employment status alone. Specifically, we concentrated on two areas of research interest. The first is whether employment status is related to marriage and cohabitation for low-income single mothers. Second, given the findings of several studies documenting single mothers' concerns about making financial ends meet each month, the challenges of raising a family and maintaining stable employment in low-wage jobs, and the limited availability of employed men (Henly & Lambert, 2005; Roy, Tubbs, & Burton, 2004; Wilson, 1 996), we also investigated whether job characteristics such as nonstandard work schedules, mothers' perceptions of financial security, and the pool of employed potential partners influenced marriage and cohabitation over an 18-month period.

Conceptual Framework

Examining whether mothers' employment as well as a broader array of employment characteristics influence marriage and cohabitation, our study conceptualization was informed by the basic economic model of marriage markets proposed by Becker (198 1) and updated by Oppenheimer (1988).

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