Poster Paper: Mother Knows Best? Women's Control of Economic Resources and Child Outcomes in Low-Income Fragile Families

Saturday, November 9, 2013
West End Ballroom A (Washington Marriott)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Cassandra Robertson, Harvard University

The determinants of child outcomes in developing countries have been studied extensively, with particular attention paid to gender norms and a woman’s relative position in her relationship with her husband.  Social scientists have found that a woman’s control of financial resources in the family has a significant effect on child outcomes, and is associated with better child nutrition, higher weight, better school attendance and higher test scores.  Women and men have different spending preferences, and thus allocate their resources differently, with significant consequences for their children. This literature suggests that when women are able to enact their spending preferences, their children benefit.

However, this line of research has not been explored in the developed world, and may or may not hold in the context of a developed country. It is unclear if women’s control of financial resources matters in developed nations, or if in environments with more resources, the relationship disappears. Furthermore, because the development literature is focused in the developing world, it does not examine unmarried couples or the effects of parents’ relationship transitions on children’s outcomes.  Applying this perspective to the American context will not only deepen our understanding of couple dynamics in America but will question our assumption that in developed nations, parents must be equally invested in their children.

Exploring the intra-household dynamics of cohabiting couples with children is particularly important given recent demographic trends. As of 2007, 40% of all births in America occur outside of marriage, and an even higher percentage of African American and Hispanic children are born to unmarried parents. Children born to unmarried parents face significant challenges and perform worse on a variety of measures of child outcomes, from educational achievement to obesity. Though there is some evidence that the effects of instability and single parenthood can be moderated by a mother’s characteristics, such as her education level, the majority of this literature has focused on how a mother’s individual characteristics – her education, her income, and her family ties – impact her child’s outcomes.  This literature does not delve into the importance of a woman’s position within those relationships, and ignores the possibility that the traits of the relationship directly affect investments in children. This paper changes the level of analysis, focusing on the woman’s position within the couple dyad, rather than the individual traits of parents. This paper willdocument the relationship between women’s control of financial resources and child outcomes, applying insights from the development literature to low-income, minority married and cohabiting families in the United States.

This paper will use data from the Fragile Families dataset to analyze the relationship between control of financial resources and child outcomes, specifically child test scores. The analysis will first document the extent to which differences in financial control explain child test scores across both married and cohabiting couples.  Supplementary analysis will investigate whether a mother maintaining control of financial resources can moderate the effect of transitions between relationship statuses.