May Not Hurt Children
A new, three-city study that will be published in the March 7 issue of Science offers a significant boost to the modest body of research that has looked at the looming question of how children have fared since their mothers moved from welfare to work following the sweeping welfare reforms of the 1990s.
Offering the most definitive answers yet to a question that has been highly fueled by politics, the study suggests -- at least in the short run and during good economic times -- that children in low-income families are not harmed, on average, when their mothers leave welfare or move into the workforce. (The study was conducted at the height of the economic boom.)
That finding fits with earlier studies on maternal employment and welfare participation, with one exception, according to Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, the Northwestern University professor who is the lead author of the study with co-authors from Northwestern, Johns Hopkins University and other institutions.
In contrast to earlier experimental studies that found negative effects of maternal employment on adolescents, the study found no evidence of harmful effects on adolescents. In fact, the study reports slight evidence that mothers' entry into the labor force was related to improvements in adolescents' mental health, while exits from employment were linked with teenagers' increased behavior problems.
In other words, the basic thrust of welfare reform -- requiring mothers to make the transition from welfare to work -- may not be as harmful to children as many people feared when the legislation was passed in 1996, and may even be beneficial to teenagers' mental health.
The positive findings for adolescents, while statistically significant, however, were slight, while preschoolers were neither helped nor hurt, emphasizes Chase-Lansdale, a professor of developmental psychology in Northwestern's School of Education and Social Policy and research fellow at Northwestern's Institute for Policy Research (IPR).
"One argument is that the positive and negative aspects of going off welfare or getting a job may cancel each other out," she says. "Take, for example, the tradeoff of time and money when mothers of preschoolers went to work. Family income increased and mothers' time with children decreased, so these two effects may have offset each other."
But for adolescents the researchers did not find a tradeoff between time and money. While family income increased with employment, mothers did not substantially reduce their time with adolescents.
Evidence from earlier studies suggests that mothers are able to compensate for time away from children due to employment by cutting down on sleep, leisure or volunteer activities. Accordingly, time-use data from the latest study suggests that when mothers went to work, they cut back on personal, social and educational activities that did not involve their children.
The funding for the $20 million study was provided by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (60 percent), five other federal agencies and 14 private foundations.
The study draws upon data from a longitudinal survey of 2,402 low-income children and their mothers in poor neighborhoods of Boston, Chicago and San Antonio, chosen to reflect different regions of the country and a diverse mix of racial and ethnic groups. Researchers analyzed the association between children's developmental trajectories and their mothers' transitions into and out of employment. Families with a preschool child (2 to 4 years) or a young adolescent (10 to 14 years) participated in 2.5-hour interviews in 1999 and 16 months later, on average, in 2001.
The study's co-investigators include Northwestern's Chase-Lansdale, IPR Research Fellow Brenda J. Lohman and Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal; Robert A. Moffitt, Andrew J. Cherlin (pictured at right) and Jennifer Roff, Johns Hopkins University; Rebekah Levine Coley, Boston College; and Laura D. Pittman, Northern Illinois University.
The comprehensive and in-depth measures of child development that this study employs may in part explain why the positive findings for adolescents contrast with earlier studies that found more behavior problems and lower school performance for adolescents when their mothers moved from welfare to work, according to Chase-Lansdale.
The study's measures include direct assessment of cognitive achievement through a test administered to the children by trained interviewers. "Direct assessments of children's reading and math skills may be more valid and reliable than teacher or mother reports of school progress employed in the other studies," Chase-Lansdale says.
The study also utilizes a child behavior checklist that includes a 100-item mother-report measure to assess emotion and behavior problems, such as depression, anxiety, aggression and delinquency. Adolescents self-reported their psychological distress and delinquent behaviors.
"Our best guess about the positive response is that when mothers go to work, teenagers' levels of anxiety go down," says Chase-Lansdale. "And, though that assumption is statistically qualified, it is a possible explanation when you consider how perceptive teenagers are to their environments."
The study also found modest evidence that mothers' exits from the welfare system were related to enhanced cognitive achievement and reduced drug and alcohol use among adolescents. Entrances onto welfare showed the opposite pattern.
Early childhood and early adolescence were studied because they are important developmental periods in which environmental influences may be particularly salient in shaping or altering children's trajectories.
About 46 percent of the children were African-American, 48 percent were Hispanic and 6 percent were non-Hispanic white and other ethnicities. At the first interview, most of the families were poor, with an average income that put them well below the federal poverty line, and approximately 38 percent were on welfare.
"Whether or not a mother left welfare, entered welfare, took a job or left a job between the interviews had no discernable link with preschoolers' development," said co-investigator Andrew J. Cherlin, Griswold Professor of Public Policy and chair of the Sociology Department at Johns Hopkins. "And the statistically significant declines in adolescents' psychological distress held true whether mothers began working for one or more hours or 40 hours and whether for a short or long term."
Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, professor of developmental psychology in Northwestern's School of Education and Social Policy and research fellow at Northwestern's Institute for Policy Research (IPR) and lead author of the Science study, may be reached at (847) 467-6906 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andrew J. Cherlin, Griswold Professor of Public Policy and chair, department of sociology, Johns Hopkins University, and co-author of the Science study, may be reached at (410) 516-2370 or email@example.com.
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