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Employment Patterns of Less-Skilled Workers: Links to Children’s Behavior and Academic Progress

Abstract

Using data from five waves of the Women’s Employment Survey (WES; 1997–2003), we examine the links between low-income mothers’ employment patterns and the emotional behavior and academic progress of their children. We find robust and substantively important linkages between several different dimensions of mothers’ employment experiences and child outcomes. The pattern of results is similar across empirical approaches—including ordinary least squares and child fixed-effect models, with and without an extensive set of controls. Children exhibit fewer behavior problems when 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 employment in a stable job). Children whose mothers work full-time and/or have fluctuating work 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 do not require cognitive skills. 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 work schedules and full-time work in non-cognitively demanding jobs are each strongly associated with the probability that the child will repeat a grade or be placed in special education.

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Notes

  1. Researchers have found no differences in race, age, education, earnings, or family structure between women who dropped out of the survey and those who stayed until the final wave (Cadena and Pape 2006).

  2. There is some noncomparability in the characterization of involuntary job loss because of changes in the wording of these questions across waves. Thus, we emphasize the involuntary job loss effects in the longer-run models as opposed to the short-run models that use between-wave changes that could instead reflect changes in the wording of the survey question.

  3. Based on the unconditional hierarchical random-effects model results (not shown), a 1 standard deviation increase in the level of BPI, externalizing behavior problems index, and internalizing behavior problems index is 3.2312, 1.0358, 0.8423, respectively (all net of measurement error and transitory fluctuations). A 1 standard deviation increase in the annual growth rate of BPI and externalizing and internalizing behavior problems index is 0.4490, 0.1440, and 0.2241, respectively.

  4. \( {O_{{it}}} = {\beta_1}Worke{d_{{t - 1,t}}} + {\beta_2}Worked \times JobInstabilit{y_{{t - 1,t}}} + {\beta_3}Worked \times JobMobilit{y_{{t - 1,t}}} + {\beta_4}Worked \times FullTim{e_{{t - 1,t}}} + {\beta_5}Worked \times FluctuateWkHr{s_{{t - 1,t}}} + \delta {\mathbf{X}}_{{it}}^p + \phi {\mathbf{X}}_{{it}}^c + {\alpha_0} + {\alpha_i} + {v_{{it}}}. \)

    The OLS model estimated as expressed with the maternal employment measures is shown.

  5. A 1 standard deviation increase in the average growth rate of behavior problems is equivalent to roughly 0.20 of a standard deviation increase in the average level of behavior problem indices we measure. The much larger effect sizes of the results from the change models capture the average effects on the growth rate of these problem behaviors, while these effects translate to smaller changes in the levels of these behaviors.

  6. A significant minority of mothers experienced numerous job transitions, both between any pair of survey waves and across the entire study period (e.g., 25% of the mothers experienced four or more episodes of job instability). Among sample mothers, 35% lost a job due to being fired or laid-off at least once during the seven-year study, and 10% lost two or more jobs for such involuntary reasons. The median job duration was 7 months, and only one-third of jobs lasted a year or more.

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Acknowledgments

Support for this project was provided by the W.E. Upjohn Institute under Grant #2005-98. We also thank the research staff at the University of Michigan's Poverty Research and Training Center, particularly Margaret Hudson, Sarah Marsh, and Andreas Pape. Patrick Wightman provided excellent research assistance. This research was also supported in part by grants from the Annie E. Casey, Charles Stewart Mott, Joyce, and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundations; the Substance Abuse Policy Research Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; the National Institute of Mental Health (R24-MH51363); the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (P50-HD38986); and the University of Michigan Office of the Vice-President for Research, by grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to Kalil (F32 HD08145-01) and Dunifon (F32 HD08627-01), and by a grant from the Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center at Cornell University. Special thanks are due to survey manager Bruce Medbery, Eva Leissou, and the interviewing staff.

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Correspondence to Rucker C. Johnson.

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Johnson, R.C., Kalil, A. & Dunifon, R.E. Employment Patterns of Less-Skilled Workers: Links to Children’s Behavior and Academic Progress. Demography 49, 747–772 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-011-0086-4

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Keywords

  • Maternal employment
  • Welfare
  • Child development