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Work after Welfare Reform and the Well-being of Children.

September 2007

Rucker C. Johnson, Ariel Kalil, and Rachel E. Dunifon.

Download 'Johnson_Kalil_Dunifon_JHR_8_31_07.pdf'.


Using data from five waves of the Women’s Employment Survey (WES; 1997-2003), we examine the links between low-income mothers’ employment experiences and the emotional well-being and academic progress of their children. We find robust linkages between several different dimensions of mothers’ employment experiences and child outcomes. The pattern of results is remarkably similar across all of our empirical approaches—including hierarchical random effects models with an unusually extensive set of controls, child fixed effect models, and instrumental variables estimates. First, children exhibit fewer behavior problems when their mothers work and experience job stability (relative to children whose mothers do not work). In contrast, maternal work accompanied by job instability is associated with significantly higher child behavior problems (relative to job stability). Children whose mothers work full-time and/or have fluctuating levels of work hours or irregular schedules also exhibit significantly higher levels of behavior problems. However, full-time work has negative consequences for children only when it is in jobs that offer limited potential for wage growth. Such negative consequences are completely offset when this work experience is in jobs that require the cognitive skills that lead to higher wage growth prospects. Finally, fluctuating levels of work hours are also strongly associated with the probability that the child will repeat a grade or be placed in special education. These results suggest that “welfare reform,” when considered more broadly to include the new landscape of employment for low-income mothers, has imposed some risks to children’s development.

JEL classification: J13, J22, I38
Key words: maternal employment; welfare; child development.

Child Well-being and Child Development, Employment, Unemployment, and the Labor Market, Welfare Reform and the Administration of Welfare Programs