The Impact of Parental Work Requirements on Child Development: Simple Policy Requires Complex Analysis

Author: Susan Stanton . Date: May 5, 2016

Are Parental Welfare Work Requirements Good for Disadvantaged Children?” This is the question that Chris Herbst, Associate Professor of Economics at Arizona State University tried to answer during his presentation on April 13, 2016, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s LaFollette School of Public Affairs. Using variations in the work requirements of states’ Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs, he developed a model to estimate the impact on a child’s cognitive development when their mother is employed in a low wage job during the first year of her child’s life. Increased attention on women’s labor force participation rates dating back to the 1960s solidified a debate about the connection between child well-being and mothers working outside the home. It is important to recognize that the work lives, wages and parenting roles of low-income fathers that don’t live with their kids all the time also influence children’s development.

Professor Herbst used media headlines to highlight that the fabricated image of the “welfare queen” remains strong. That fictitious image holds even decades after TANF work requirements were enacted through the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) which contributed to single moms entering the workforce in numbers comparable to single women without children. The level of employment among single moms increased by 25% and remains high. While states’ policies differ, the Age of-Youngest-Child-Exemptions fall into three categories: standard, birth order and lifetime allotment. A standard exemption allows the parent to remain home with their baby until that child reaches a specified age. A birth order exemption grants a specified exemption time for the first child, a specified amount for the second child, etc. The lifetime allotment gives a specified number of months which can be used up with the first child or spread out over all the children the mother has. Herbst’s findings indicate that for women who are likely eligible to receive TANF, each additional month of a mother’s employment during the first year of her child’s life leads to a 1% reduction in scores on a test of infant development. Herbst also acknowledged that his model did not address any differential impacts that may occur between a mom who chooses to work and a mom who is required to work in order for her family to receive TANF benefits.

While employment can bring regular wages sufficient to lift some children out of poverty, Herbst also indicated that the stresses and struggles of single mothers entering the workforce early in their babies’ lives are not necessarily offset by a paycheck. Some children are negatively impacted in the realms of nutrition, reading, and/or behavior and some mothers experience mental health challenges. This finding suggests that a deeper understanding of the experiences of these mothers would be beneficial, as well as an understanding of the roles of fathers who don’t live with their children all the time and other family and community supports that parents rely on. Understanding the roles and responsibilities of the important adults in a child’s life will lead to a richer understanding of the ways in which parental work requirements—whether associated with TANF programs or child support enforcement—and child care arrangements may negatively and/or positively impact child development.

Much of the discussion at the session focused on choices Herbst made in developing his statistical model and less on policy implications that could improve both the well-being and economic security of mothers, fathers and children. By utilizing these findings and working to understand the experiences of these family members, policy makers can take actions support women as they make difficult choices around balancing employment and parenting. Additionally, as Herbst continues to disaggregate data to consider the child development effects generated through different types of child care and caregiving arrangements, we look forward to an exploration of the impacts on child development when care is provided by parents who don’t live with their children all the time.

In the conclusion of the paper he presented, Herbst noted: “However, the success of welfare and related policy reforms must be evaluated not just against the benefits of increased maternal employment, but also the costs associated with reduced child well-being. Such considerations are particularly salient in light of recent policy proposals to bring work requirements to other programs within the safety net (e.g., U.S. House Budget Committee, 2014)” (p. 33). The roles of both parents in the lives of their children must be essential considerations for any safety net reform proposals. If the U.S. is to build an inclusive economy, the real experiences of mothers and fathers who do not live with their children all the time, and are eligible for means-tested income support programs, must be included in both policy making and analysis.

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