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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

research assistance.

Page 2


Children's Home


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.

Page 3



Parental Employment

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

Page 4


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.

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


Home Score

Page 5



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

Worked, No

Worked, Received

No Work, Received


Public Assistance

Public Assistance

Public Assistance

Number of mothers








12.2 years

11.7 years

11.0 years

Cognitive test score

69 points

60 points

50 points

Marital status

75% married

40% married

35% married

Family size

1.8 children

1.9 children

2.3 children

Job Characteristics



48% above average

32% above average

Not applicable

Hourly wages, 1986



Not applicable

Work hours, 1986

69% full time

56% full time

Not applicable

Home Environment


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.

Table 1

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.

Page 6


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

related support.


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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