Panel Paper: Parental Employment and Children's Well-Being

Friday, November 8, 2013 : 9:00 AM
Washington (Ritz Carlton)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Carolyn Heinrich, University of Texas, Austin
Recent statistics on parental employment show that among the 34.3 million U.S. families with children in 2011, over 87 percent had an employed parent.  In addition, women with school-age children participate in the labor force at about the same rate as all working-age women today. These statistics imply that in households with children, the large majority do not have a stay-at-home parent, even in married-couple families.  

Low-income and single-parent families have been particularly affected by changing public policies and expectations for their employment.  Advocates of these policies emphasize the potential benefits of parental work, including positive role models, higher self-esteem and a sense of control among working mothers, more productive daily routines for families, and higher earnings, while critics are more likely to point to their possible negative effects, such as increased parental stress, children placed in unsafe or unsuitable child care, and reduced parental monitoring of older children.

A key objective of this paper is to illuminate the relationship between parental employment and children’s well-being and to consider the implications for policies intended to support parents in their roles as both worker and parent. The paper begins with a theoretical discussion of plausible mechanisms through which parental employment is expected to affect child well-being—e.g., bonding and attachment, parental time with children and role modeling, income and parental health—considering differences by maternal and paternal roles and the age of the child.  It then turns to a discussion of the research evidence on how parental employment, through these mechanisms, affects children’s outcomes, such as their cognitive achievement and behavior.  This is followed by an appraisal of existing policies and programs (e.g., parental leave, flexible work scheduling, child care assistance, tax credits, etc.) that are intended to support parents in their efforts to provide for their children’s needs through work and to minimize any negative effects of parental employment on children. 

In the context of this panel session’s focus on two generations—parents and their children—this paper then considers the policy implications of the intimate and important linkages between parents’ work participation their ability to effectively engage with and care for their children (and to advance their children’s outcomes).  One common model for a two-generation intervention includes high quality, early-childhood education; sectoral job training that offers parents opportunities to upgrade their workforce skills and improve their employment opportunities through training in high-demand occupations; and wrap-around family and peer support services that address family support needs. If these programs are successful in helping parents to secure jobs with higher levels of job security, wages and other attributes that improve how they feel about their work and the role models and encouragement they offer to their children, then the children may very well reap benefits beyond those associated with the education and stronger financial supports families may realize through them.