Journal Issue: Welfare to Work Volume 7 Number 1 Spring 1997
Viewed from the perspective of policymakers, these results focus attention on the wage levels mothers leaving welfare can command. About half the employed mothers in this sample (mothers who were at any time single and at any time on AFDC) earned wages of less than $5.00 per hour. Yet, when a number of background differences were taken into account, this study showed that outcomes for the children whose mothers earned these very low wages were similar to the outcomes for children with nonworking mothers.
These findings indicate that maternal employment, even at very low wages, is not associated with negative cognitive and academic outcomes for children. Instead, simple associations between work and higher wages and children's outcomes are quite positive. These positive relationships are tempered when the factors that predict whether mothers will be employed are controlled; but even these results suggest a picture of no effects or of positive implications, with the single exception of lower math scores for boys whose mothers work at low wages.
This study indicates that behavioral problems diminish as maternal wages increase. Because the measure of behavioral problems is based on the mother's report, the ratings she gives may reflect her overall positive or negative outlook. If employment is welcomed, the mother's perception of her child may be bright, while a mother who is depressed staying at home may give a negative slant to ratings. Of course, it may be the case that children's behavioral problems are less common in employed-mother families. Related studies suggest that when family circumstances change, children's behavior problem scores change more quickly than do cognitive outcomes,5 so the positive effects of employment on social behavior may be a harbinger of later benefits in other child outcomes. Regardless of interpretation, these findings suggest that in low-income families, maternal employment does not, on average, harm children. Rather, it may be that a lack of employment, even among mothers, is more stressful and damaging.6 Of course, hours of work and child care quality may also be crucial factors, and they are not measured in this study.
Other recent research looking at younger children bolsters this conclusion. For example, a study that used the NLSY data set to examine the effects of welfare and maternal employment during the first three years of life found no evidence that maternal employment harmed the cognitive abilities of children in poor and near-poor families.7 Also, early findings from a national study of infants showed that maternal employment and child care participation do not damage the quality of the infant's attachment to the mother.8
In sum, these findings justify a cautious optimism with regard to employment among single mothers who have received welfare, at least under conditions of self-selection into employment. As noted earlier, however, these results cannot be extrapolated to circumstances in which maternal employment is mandated by law. Understanding child development under these circumstances must await the results of experimental studies of welfare policies and programs that examine child outcomes as well as effects on employment and welfare receipt.9