Are Kids Better Off if Mum Works?

University of North Carolina’s Christopher Ruhm looks at a key issue underlying not only US welfare reform, but also the recent Australian changes to the parenting payment program. Does encouraging poor parents to work help or hinder their children’s outcomes? On balance, he seems to find in favour of a pro-work policy, at least insofar as it affects low-income parents:

This study investigates how maternal employment is related to the outcomes of 10 and 11 year olds, controlling for a wide variety of child, mother and family characteristics. The results suggest that limited amounts of work by mothers benefit youths who are relatively "disadvantaged" and even long hours, which occur relatively rarely, are unlikely to leave them much worse off. By contrast, maternal labor supply is estimated to have much more harmful effects on "advantaged" adolescents. Particularly striking are the reductions in cognitive test scores and increases in excess body weight predicted by even moderate amounts of employment. The negative cognitive effects occur partly because maternal labor supply reduces the time these children spend in enriching home environments. Some of the growth in obesity may be related to determinants of excess weight that are common to the child and mother. Work hours are also associated with relatively large (in percentage terms) increases in early substance use and small decreases in behavior problems; however, neither are statistically significant.

I’m not sure I like his identification strategy (I’d prefer a natural experiment, where we took account of the unobservables a bit better), but it’s an interesting finding.

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2 Responses to Are Kids Better Off if Mum Works?

  1. Christine says:

    This is so depressing. Mothers who can afford to send their kids to a good daycare if they work are hurting their kids if they go off to work more than mothers who can’t afford to send their kids to a good daycare? (Naturally it’s all relative.) So what is the policy implication? Massive subsidies to work for low income women relative to high income women, and try to force high income women back into the home? Another solution might be to pay early childhood educators a decent wage and hope that the quality of care goes up. Except that’s virtually impossible.

    And why does it always have to be mothers? What is it about the effect of “maternal employment” rather than the effect of the rise in dual income households? Why can’t we have just a bit more balance in saying that it’s not about one person going out to work, it’s about two people?

    Sorry, just feeling depressed about life choices all over again now I find out I’ll be making my child fat as well as totally screwed up for other reasons.

    The paper does seem interesting, though I’m pretty sure that high SES mothers who choose to stay home with their kids are quite different from high SES mothers who choose not – with the latter probably being much less interested in and capable of looking after their children well. I don’t think (quick skim basis only) Ruhm mentioned that possibility, and I suspect his ID strategies don’t work well in the face of a selection on unobservables problem. The future work thing is a bit different, but I still think it doesn’t speak to the selection issue.

  2. Andrew Leigh says:

    Christine, I agree with your methodological reservations. One way of getting around this would be if we randomly allocated some extra scarce childcare places, and then followed those who got them and those who missed out.

    And yes, you’re right that plenty more blokes might want to follow the Mark Latham example (well, the home dad part of it, anyhow). I’m certainly hoping to do this for a while. But in an environment where very few dads do this, there isn’t really enough variation to make an interesting study. Not to mention the non-random problem you allude to in the case of mothers.

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