Effects of Low-Wage
Employment on Family
By Chris Pull
Assumptions about the processes that link a mother's employment to the development of
her child must underlie expectations about how children may fare when their mothers
move from welfare dependence into employment. This article explores the idea, men-
tioned in the research overview by Zaslow and Emig in this journal issue, that the working
conditions such as wages, work hours, and task complexity that mothers experience on the
job can influence their behavior as parents and shape the home environments they pro-
vide for their children. This article discusses the significance of home environments for
children's intellectual and emotional development and considers how home surroundings
change when mothers begin jobs that are more rewarding or less rewarding. The authors
conclude that, while maternal employment is not necessarily harmful, if welfare recipients
find only low-wage, stressful jobs, working may prove costly for both family and child well-
being. The authors recommend that welfare-to-work programs devote attention to
(1) assisting mothers to obtain more complex work at good wages, (2) helping mothers
understand the role home environments play in shaping children's development, and
(3) encouraging parents to make their children's home surroundings as positive as possible.
s our society continues to struggle with questions about how to lower wel-
fare expenditures and attempts to define the levels of support that are
appropriate to families in need, a small number of researchers have
asked how the parental transition from welfare to work might affect children. To
assist in policy formulation, this article discusses ways that specific aspects of
maternal employment shape children's home environments, which, in turn,
influence child outcomes.
Maternal employment can affect the family in conflicting ways. Obviously,
employment contributes to a family's financial well-being, especially when the
mother's wages make the difference between dependence on welfare and self-
sufficiency. On the other hand, poorly paid, stressful jobs with long hours can
jeopardize the quality of parenting by their demands on parents' time, energy,
and attention. In many ways, the positive and negative working conditions that
The Future of ChildrenWELFARE TO WORK Vol. 7 * No. 1 - Spring 1997
Toby L. Parcel, Ph.D., is
a professor of sociology
and Associate Dean of
the College of Social and
Behavioral Sciences at
Ohio State University.
Elizabeth G. Menaghan,
Ph.D., is a professor of
sociology and chair of the
Depar tment of Soci-
ology at Ohio State
Preparation of this article was
supported in part by the
C o l l e g e o f S o c i a l a n d
Behavioral Sciences and the
Center for Human Resource
Research at Ohio State
University and by the
National Institute of Mental
Health (R01 MH 54371) to
Elizabeth G. Menaghan and
Frank Mott. The authors
thank Mikaela Dufur for
Children develop within families, especially
in their early years, and therefore family
organization and well-being are likely to
affect child outcomes. Research has shown
that children's immediate family environ-
ments are potent sources of both intellec-
tual and emotional learning. To capture
these important influences on children's
development, researchers have used an
interview and observational rating scale
called the Home Observation for Measure-
ment of the Environment (HOME) to mea-
sure the home's physical safety and cleanli-
ness, the amount of appropriate cognitive
stimulation provided there, and the extent
of interpersonal warmth shown by the par-
ents to the child.
For preschool children,
the scale includes such commonsense items
for cognitive stimulation as the number of
books the child owns, the frequency of story
reading, and whether a family member
helps the child with numbers, colors, and
similar activities. The degree of warmth of
the adult-child relationship is captured by
the interviewer's observations of whether the
mother conversed pleasantly with the child,
hugged him or her, and responded to the
child's questions or requests.
These aspects of the home environment
have been shown to have important conse-
quences for children's cognitive perfor-
mance and academic achievement
for their emotional well-being and social
Of course, other family char-
acteristics also affect children's develop-
ment. These include the presence of the
father, the number of siblings, the child's
physical health, and the mother's self-
esteem, age, and education. For instance,
as the number of children in the family
increases, so do the behavioral problems
and intellectual difficulties of the chil-
Nevertheless, the quality of parent-
child relations and the quality of the home
environment that parents provide are
important means by which parents' social
experiences and position affect their chil-
dren's prospects in life.
mothers experience on the job are reflected in the home environments they cre-
ate for their children.
This article uses existing data to illuminate family processes that may con-
front those who exit welfare and enter employment. The article examines how
the home environments of children ages three to six change when mothers
begin paid employment and reveals different effects depending on the nature of
the mother's job. Findings reported here indicate that when mothers start a low-
wage, repetitive job, the quality of their children's experiences at home begins to
deteriorate, becoming less stimulating and nurturing. Conversely, mothers who
start well-paid, interesting jobs provide richer and more supportive home sur-
roundings for their children.
The article also considers disadvantages faced by welfare recipients that may
make their entry into employment problematic for their children. To counteract
any resulting threats to children's well-being, programs that aim to support fam-
ilies making the transition from welfare to work should include efforts to
enhance the home environments that mothers provide for their children.
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN - SPRING 1997
Inquiries concerning the effects parental
employment may have on child well-being
have typically focused on whether mothers
are employed or not, but it may be more
fruitful to consider how variations in work-
ing conditions affect those who are
Three elements of working
conditions that affect family life can be dif-
ferentiated: wage levels, work hours, and
occupational complexity. Wage levels are
important because they indicate the mate-
rial support parents can bring to the house-
hold. Low wages limit the material resources
parents can provide for their children, and
low wages can produce feelings of distress
that affect parent-child interaction.
effect of number of work hours is, similarly,
what one would expect, since time spent at
work limits the amount of time parents are
able to spend with their children. The com-
bined effects of these factors make the situa-
tion of a single parent working long hours
for low pay particularly problematic.
Theorists have argued that the working
conditions parents face in their paid jobs,
including occupational complexity, are
important determinants of their child-rearing
Occupational complexity refers to
the extent to which a job entails self-direction,
not direct supervision, and variety as opposed
to repetition. For instance, white-collar work
often involves manipulation of ideas or sym-
bols, or interpersonal dealings. This type of
work is likely to be complex and to give the
worker autonomy. Blue-collar work more
often requires manipulation of things and is
more standardized and closely supervised.
Complex jobs can lead parents to encourage
self-direction and intellectual flexibility in
their children, and these qualities benefit
children as they mature. By contrast, working
in routinized, repetitive, heavily supervised
jobs can erode parents' intellectual flexibility
and lead them to stress obedience over
autonomy in their children.
who have tested these ideas have found that
mothers with more complex jobs provide bet-
ter home environments for their children.
Starting Work: Effects on the
From a policy perspective, one key issue is
how children's home environments will be
affected as mothers move from welfare to
work. Although no studies have followed
families through that specific transition,
the authors have examined changes in
parental employment and in children's
home environments among a sample of
1,403 families included in the National
Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a longitudi-
nal, intergenerational data set that includes
information on maternal background, wel-
fare receipt and work activities, and devel-
opmental assessments of children.
study combined information on both work-
ing and nonworking mothers with chil-
dren from three to six years of age in
1986 and again in 1988. In 1986, some
55% of the mothers were employed, and
66% were married to employed men. Over
the two-year period studied, an additional
17% of the mothers began employment,
and 12% stopped employment. Other
important family changes occurred, as well.
Another child was born to 24% of the fami-
lies, 6% married, and 9% divorced. The
study examined changes in the quality of
preschool children's home environments,
linking these especially to the changes in
mothers' employment status. The results of
the study are summarized in Figure 1.
The first group shown in Figure 1, chil-
dren with mothers who had stable jobs and
stable marriages across the two-year interval,
experienced the greatest improvement in
home environments. By contrast, home envi-
ronments worsened sharply for the second
group shown--children whose mothers were
persistently unmarried and unemployed.
The third group shows mothers who
remained unmarried but began employ-
ment, and for this group the effect of begin-
ning employment varied depending on both
wages and the occupational complexity of the
mother's new job. Beginning a high-wage job
that was high in complexity did no harm to
the quality of children's home surroundings
(the apparent improvement is not significant,
statistically), but starting a low-wage job of low
complexity was quite problematic. The quality
of the home environments dropped for the
latter group by a significant amount, worsen-
ing at least as much as the homes of mothers
who remained unmarried and not employed.
Unmarried mothers who are not employed
during their children's early years (like most
current welfare recipients) appear to face a
Effects of Low-Wage Employment on Family Well-Being
dilemma: If they remain out of the labor
force, the persistence of low interpersonal and
economic resources in the family takes a toll
that damages the quality of children's home
environments during the critical early school
years. On the other hand, if they enter the
labor force but can find only low-wage employ-
ment, these mothers may gain little materially
and yet have less time to cope with their
unchanged household responsibilities. Some
argue that any form of maternal employ-
ment is better than none--that is, that "work-
fare" is preferable to welfare.
mothers to work may indeed be better for
state and federal budgets burdened by the
cost of welfare benefits, but these findings sug-
gest that children will not necessarily benefit.
Generalizing to Mothers
Targeted by Welfare Reform
When applying these findings to policy deci-
sions, it is also important to consider the
ways in which the mothers who were not
employed in 1986 differed from those who
worked that year. Table 1 separates into
three groups 1,040 of the women who took
part in the National Longitudinal Survey of
Youth and had at least one child between the
ages of three and six in 1986. The three
groups are (1) mothers who worked and did
not receive public assistance (Aid to Families
with Dependent Children, food stamps, or a
housing subsidy); (2) mothers who worked
and also received assistance; and (3) moth-
ers who did not work but relied on public
assistance. The table excludes mothers who
neither worked outside the home nor
received public assistance--homemakers--
although they were included in Figure 1.
The sizable second group is a reminder that
work and welfare receipt can overlap, as fam-
ilies move back and forth between welfare
and work or qualify for some welfare bene-
fits even while working. (See also the article
by Hershey and Pavetti in this journal issue.)
Source: Menaghan, E.G., and Parcel, T.L. Social sources of change in children's home environments: The effects of parental occupational expe-
riences and family conditions. Journal of Marriage and the Family (1995) 57,1:80, Figure 1.
Changes in Home Environment for Families with Different
Employment Experiences, 1986 to 1988
Note: The sample is drawn from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and includes 1,403 mothers with children ages
three to six in 1986. The bars in the chart compare the scores that families in each group received on the Home Observation
for Measurement of the Environment (HOME) rating scale in 1986 with their scores in 1988.
Average mother who remained
unmarried and began employment at a
job average in complexity and wages
Change in HOME Score from 1986 to 1988
Average mother who
remained married and
employed at average job
Average mother who remained
unmarried and not employed
Average mother who remained
unmarried and began employment at
a job high in complexity and wages
Average mother who remained
unmarried and began employment
at a job low in complexity and wages
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN - SPRING 1997
The family background and employment
characteristics shown for the three groups in
Table 1 reveal that families in which mothers
did not work and did receive public assis-
tance had the fewest resources to draw upon
in terms of marital status, levels of mater-
nal education, and levels of cognitive skill.
The two employed groups differed, as well.
Compared with the mothers who combined
employment with public assistance, the self-
sufficient workers were more likely to work
full time, their wages were higher, and their
jobs were more complex. HOME scores vary
significantly across the three groups.
These differences mean that the
employed mothers depicted in Figure 1 are
not strictly comparable to mothers who
receive public assistance and might be affect-
ed by welfare reform. Most welfare recipi-
ents will seek employment with few personal
resources, and they will most likely be con-
signed to the poorly paid, repetitive jobs that
Figure 1 shows are the least supportive of
positive parenting. (See also the article by
Burtless in this journal issue.) It appears that
early social advantage in one generation
affects the well-being of the next, in part, by
influencing the occupational conditions par-
ents face and therefore shaping the family
lives parents construct for their children.
The research discussed here shows the
importance of the home environments par-
ents create for their children and reveals
that those environments reflect the positive
or negative influence of parents' work out-
side the home. From the research flow sev-
eral important policy considerations related
to the transition from welfare to work.
The welfare policy debate has concerned
the extent of support that society should
provide to households headed by single
females. Welfare legislation enacted in 1996
replaces a system that penalized paid
employment by reducing assistance with one
No Work, Received
Number of mothers
Cognitive test score
48% above average
32% above average
Hourly wages, 1986
Work hours, 1986
69% full time
56% full time
66% above average
53% above average
32% above average
Public assistance includes AFDC, food stamps, housing assistance, and other supports for low-income
381 of the mothers in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth with children ages three to six neither
worked nor received public assistance in 1986 and are not included in this table. They were, however,
included in Figure 1.
Occupational complexity averages are based only on the scores of the 781 mothers who worked in 1986.
Home Observation for Measurement of the Environment (HOME) scale averages are based on the
scores of all 1,040 mothers who in 1986 worked, received public assistance, or both.
Background Characteristics of Mothers Who Worked
and/or Received Public Assistance,
Source: Authors' tabulations based on data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth [CD-ROM] Ohio State University,
1979-92. Available from NLS User Services, 921 Chatham Lane, Suite 200, Columbus, OH 43221.
Effects of Low-Wage Employment on Family Well-Being
that will require mothers who are eligible for
welfare to go to work or prepare for employ-
ment if they are to receive assistance. The
research reported here suggests that it will
be important to consider the nature of the
jobs that mothers leaving welfare will hold
and to ask whether these jobs will be an asset
or a hindrance to families and to the devel-
opment of children. Following the finding
that higher levels of maternal job com-
plexity promote better home environments,
job training programs that enable mothers
to hold better jobs with more complex work
would be helpful to their children. Of
course, such jobs must first be available.
Child well-being can also be promoted if
efforts to strengthen children's home envi-
ronments are built into welfare-to-work pro-
grams for mothers, which often involve job
training, child care assistance, and other
Such programs might
take a two-generation focus (as discussed in
the article by Blank and Blum in this journal
issue) and teach mothers to appreciate the
importance of children's home environ-
ments and to strengthen the surroundings
they provide. Many improvements can be
made that do not require significant materi-
al resources, for instance, if adults spend
time reading to the child or helping with let-
ters and numbers, if they respond warmly to
the child's questions and requests, and if
they keep the home clean and hazard-free.
The home environment signals to the
child what the parents stand for, at least
in terms of the cognitive, emotional, and
physical dimensions considered in this
study. It is appropriate to place responsibil-
ity on the parents for providing a positive
home environment for their children,
although larger societal forces surely shape
the conditions under which parents create
home environments. Both the public and
the parents may respond favorably to social
interventions like those suggested here
that focus attention on children's needs,
while encouraging their parents to become
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