Journal Issue: Welfare to Work Volume 7 Number 1 Spring 1997
As policymakers redesign their welfare programs, strengthening employment opportunities and requirements for mothers who receive public assistance, there is little research that can tell them how the children in welfare-dependent families will fare as their mothers are coaxed or pressed into the labor market. As noted in the research overview by Zaslow and Emig in this journal issue, most women who have moved from welfare into employment have done so voluntarily, and these women are likely to differ in important ways from women who are not motivated or able to find employment on their own. Those very differences can also be expected to contribute to a home environment that fosters child development. (See the article by Parcel and Menaghan in this journal issue.) Little previous research on maternal employment has isolated the separate influence of the mother's work status on child development from the myriad of child and family background characteristics that make some women more likely to work and that may also directly influence their children's development. The study discussed in this article is an effort to fill that gap, while focusing on a low-income sample.
Past research shows that the implications for children of maternal employment differ according to family income and preferences for employment and may also depend on the specific employment circumstances the mother is facing. For welfare mothers, mandatory transitions to employment may result in work that pays low wages, is sporadic or involves irregular hours, and is repetitive and unstimulating. Consequently, to obtain a fair estimate of the effects that welfare reform work requirements may have on children, one must focus on employment in the types of jobs that women leaving welfare can usually obtain.
This article takes advantage of a representative national survey with rich data on employment and public assistance to examine how maternal employment in low-wage jobs is linked to the development of children between 5 and 14 years of age in families that have received welfare. Although cognitive and social development outcomes varied for boys and girls, the data show no overall pattern of effects for children whose mothers voluntarily enter the labor force. Thus, the study results suggest that (voluntary) maternal employment—even at low wages—is not harmful to children in this age range.