Among the goals of U.S. safety net programs and tax laws is "making work pay" —that is, ensuring that working (even at a low wage) is more financially rewarding than not working. Welfare benefits and tax credits are deliberately structured around this objective. While high marginal tax rates on lower earners may discourage them from trying to increase their income, the system generally succeeds in pushing all adults who are able to work to do so.
And in most cases, the jobs these adults take benefit both them and their children. Jobs mean income, which gives children of employed parents greater access to food, health care, educational materials, and so on. Older children see their parents as role models; if their parents are employed, they may study harder or seek to get a job themselves so that they too can support themselves someday.
But under certain circumstances, parents' employment can have negative effects on their children, perhaps even enough to outweigh the positive effects of their wages. Carolyn Heinrich explores this problem in an article in the latest Future of Children publication. Here are some cases in which parental employment has significant downsides for children, according to research:
- During the first year of a child's life, when babies are forming a crucial bond with their mothers and benefit the most from breastfeeding, which is difficult for working mothers to achieve
- If children lack high-quality care and supervision during their parents' work hours
- When parents' jobs are sources of stress and frustration, which can spill over into family life and make warm, responsive parenting more difficult
- When parents work especially long or unusual hours (such as a night shift)
- If parents do not have access to paid parental leave, sick leave, and some flexibility in their schedule
In situations like these, parents' jobs can result in worse academic, behavioral, and health outcomes for their children. And as in so many other cases, it is families who are already disadvantaged---headed by a single parent with limited education and income---who are most likely to face these circumstances.
Fortunately, as Heinrich goes on to describe, some of the above problems could be solved or mitigated by relatively straightforward policy solutions. Mandating paid parental leave would help parents to establish a strong bond with their new babies, and it would make breastfeeding for at least a few months more feasible for working mothers. A homecare allowance could allow a parent to further delay returning to work, or arrange for whatever child care arrangement is best for their family, and widening access to high-quality center-based child care would ensure that more children receive consistent supervision. Worker benefits like paid sick leave and flexible hours—which can coexist with a competitive economy—would help parents to accommodate their children's needs, and could consequently reduce their work-related stress.
If we value both work and family in the United States, we should strive to "make work pay" not just for workers but also for their children.