Welfare Background, Attitudes, and Employment among New Mothers

Article excerpt

ARLEEN LEIBOWITZ University of California*


This article investigates whether new mothers' chances of being employed appear to be influenced by an intergenerationally transmitted welfare culture. Data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth are analyzed using logit and ordinary least squares regression. The findings show that, as adolescents, new mothers with welfare backgrounds were more willing than others to use welfare but were no less likely to have positive attitudes toward work. Adolescents' work attitudes influence their chances of being employed when they are new mothers, but adolescents' welfare attitudes do not. These results suggest that new mothers' chances of being employed are not influenced by an intergenerationally transmitted welfare culture.

Recently, some researchers have raised concerns about whether growing up in a welfare household reduces a mother's chances of being employed (McLanahan & Garfinkel, 1989; Mead, 1989). In fact, several consequences of growing up in a welfare household may limit a mother's success in the labor market. Compared with other women, those from welfare households have higher propensities to bear children as teenagers, to have low educational attainment, to be poor, and to use welfare (Corcoran, 1995; Gottschalk, 1995; Hayes, 1987; Plotnick, 1992; Rank & Cheng, 1995). However, there appear to be no studies that specifically examine whether growing up in a welfare household affects the employment status of mothers.

Nonetheless, because mothers from welfare backgrounds tend to bear children at young ages and to have low levels of education, their acquisition of work experience early in adulthood may be important to their later socioeconomic attainment. Indeed, now that families have become more dependent on the earnings of mothers (Jensen, Eggebeen, & Lichter, 1993; Wilkie, 1991) and most new mothers are in the labor force (Bachu, 1990), employment soon after childbirth appears to contribute substantially to long-term family economic stability (Wenk & Garrett, 1992; Yoon & Waite, 1994). This suggests a need to further study the mechanisms by which having a welfare background may influence new mothers' integration into the labor force, especially because changes in welfare policies may increase the pressure on low-wage employers to hire mothers who have a high likelihood of using welfare.

Some researchers have speculated that socialization into a welfare culture is one mechanism by which growing up in a welfare household has detrimental effects on the early labor market experiences of young adults (Mead, 1989; Murray, 1984). This mechanism is thought to operate through the formation of enduring attitudes. Specifically, mothers from welfare households are posited to be more willing than other mothers to use welfare themselves and less confident of their abilities to overcome obstacles to working (Mead, 1989). These attitudes may reduce a mother's chances of being employed, particularly when family obligations create obstacles to employment, such as soon after childbirth. Virtually no research, however, assesses whether attitudes play a role in transmitting the effects of welfare use across generations (Bane & Ellwood, 1994; Corcoran, 1995).

This article assesses three competing theoretical models of intergenerational welfare effects: a welfare culture model; an economic deprivation model; and an expectancy model. These models are applied to two research questions. First, how are women's welfare and work attitudes during adolescence influenced by growing up in a welfare household? Second, does having a welfare background affect new mothers' employment status either indirectly, through attitudes toward welfare and work that were formed during adolescence, or directly?


The scholarly debate over whether growing up in a welfare household impedes socioeconomic attainment has typically focused on the relative influence of "cultural" and "structural" mechanisms of intergenerational transmission. …


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