Low-Income Mothers' Employment Experiences: Prospective Links with Young Children's Development

By Lombardi, Caitlin McPherran; Coley, Rebekah Levine | Family Relations, July 2013 | Go to article overview

Low-Income Mothers' Employment Experiences: Prospective Links with Young Children's Development


Lombardi, Caitlin McPherran, Coley, Rebekah Levine, Family Relations


This study assessed mothers' employment experiences and links with children's long-term cognitive achievement and socio-emotional adjustment using a representative sample of lowincome mothers and children (N = 538) from the Three-City Study. Maternal employment involvement, quality, and stability were assessed over a 2-year period when children were aged 24 to 48 months. Cluster analysis of the employment characteristics yielded 4 distinct employment patterns differing by the quality and stability of employment. OLS regression analyses linking these employment patterns with children's functioning at age 9 revealed that high-quality stable employment was associated with enhanced cognitive skills and behavioral functioning among children. Further analysis suggested the significance of mothers' consistent insurance benefits to the long-term well-being of their children.

Key Words: behavior problems, cognitive skills, maternal employment, poverty, welfare reform.

The recent recession has highlighted the economic struggles of Americans experiencing unemployment, underemployment, and lowquality employment with low wages, limited benefits, and a lack of job security and stability. Already a vulnerable demographic, single women with children have been particularly hard hit. From 2000 to 2009, the percentage of single mothers with a household income below the poverty level rose from 33% to 39% (U.S. Census Bureau, 2009). Low-income mothers have become increasingly impacted by economic conditions over the past two decades because of reduced access to welfare and subsequent dramatic increases in the percentage working (Haskins, 2006). These shifts occurred amid evidence of poor job quality and stability among low-income women entering the labor force (Johnson & Corcoran, 2003), placing low-income mothers in the hazardous position of being dependent on low-quality employment during unsteady economic times.

Policymakers have argued that increased labor force participation among low-income women will lead to economic stability and in turn support children's development (Brown, 1997; Pavetti & Acs, 2001). Yet research has shown limited evidence of improvements in family or child well-being as low-income mothers' employment rates increased (Johnson & Corcoran, 2003; Slack et al., 2007). This discrepancy may be because of a lack of job stability and quality among parents with low levels of education and work experience as well as the challenges of balancing work and caregiving. Little research has provided a multifaceted understanding of economically disadvantaged mothers' labor market experiences. The goals of the current study were to assess multiple aspects of low-income women's labor market experiences over a 2-year period, to delineate characteristics of mothers associated with more stable and high-quality work patterns, and to evaluate whether work characteristics were associated prospectively with children's cognitive and behavioral functioning.

Theoretical Framework

Economic and psychological theory suggests that mothers' employment characteristics may alter the economic and social resources promoted or inhibited by employment and therefore may be linked with children's well-being. An investment perspective argues that unemployment or unstable, low-quality employment affects children by limiting families' economic assets and, therefore, the ability to acquire the resources necessary for successful child development (Becker & Tomes, 1986). Mothers with unstable or low-quality work patterns have less economic capital (e.g., wages, benefits) compared with mothers with stable or more highly paid work, but have similar constraints on the time and energy they have to devote to parenting. Another theoretical viewpoint, the family stress perspective, sees unstable, low-wage work as most influential on child development through the psychological toll it exerts on parents (Elder, 1997). Low-quality and unstable work is expected to be stressful for mothers. …

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