Putting Children First: How Low-Wage Working Mothers Manage Child Care

Article excerpt

Putting Children First: How Low-Wage Working Mothers Manage Child Care. Ajay Chaudry. New York: Russell Sage Foundation. 2004. 341 pp. ISBN 0-87154-171-8. $39.95 (hardback).

In Putting Children First, which is based on 3 years of fieldwork with 42 low-income mother-child pairs in New York City, Ajay Chaudry shows how low-income working mothers are actually forced to put children second. The topic is urgent because after the welfare reform of 1996, low-income mothers of young children are expected to work, and their work rates have risen rapidly. Chaudry selected study participants like the mothers affected by welfare reform. Most of the mothers he followed had received cash welfare assistance at some time, and during his fieldwork, most received assistance such as food stamps, public housing, and child-care subsidies. The mothers were all less-skilled workers, earned $9.27/hour on average, and held an average of 3.4 different jobs in the 4 years studied. Most worked full time. Chaudry's investigation of child-care types, mothers' preferences, and causes of instability in care is an important contribution to understanding the influence of low-income mothers' employment in young children's lives and the conditions of low-wage working women's mothering.

Chaudry's research focused on care arrangements and reasons for changes, which he documented for each child from birth to age 4. The findings are scary. The children were in nonmatemal care for an average of 10 hours a day. Yet, they did not get the high-quality, stable care that children need for intellectual development and emotional security. Instead, mothers scrambled to keep their infants, toddlers, and preschoolers in complex, fluctuating patchworks of low-cost care arrangements in order to accommodate mothers' long and frequently changing work schedules. In his sample, Chaudry identifies 215 separate "spells" of primary (nonmaternal) child care, an average of 5.12 spells per child in the first 4 years of life. More than one third (38%) of the care spells lasted between 0 and 3 months; fewer than one in five spells lasted longer than 12 months. Most mothers also used secondary care, such as hiring someone to bring a child from day care to home.

The volatility in child care, Chaudry finds, was largely because of factors that pushed children out of particular arrangements. For example, 32% of exits occurred because care was too expensive or a mother feared for her child's well-being; alterations in family, housing, health, or work situations accounted for another 32% of exits. Less than one third of exits (28%) were voluntary moves to a mother's preferred option, such as a higher quality or age-appropriate arrangement. …


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