The passage of welfare reform in the late 1990s was the final stage in a cultural shift away from expecting mothers to put childrearing first to putting work first. Most able-bodied adults are expected to work, but public and business policy have not made it easy for mothers—and fathers—to also tend to their children’s well-being. When parents are unable to effectively balance work and family needs, children often suffer. The outcome of this uneasy dynamic has been most severe on low-income working families.
Low-income working parents are more likely to work nonstandard hours without paid leave
Many low-wage jobs don’t pay nearly enough for families to rise above “low income,” which is defined as incomes less than twice the federal poverty level. A single mother with three children would need to work full time, year round for $22.80 an hour to no longer be considered “low income.” Two full-time working parents with two children would each need to earn about half that hourly wage.
Workers at the low end of the wage scale are least likely to have benefits such as sick leave or personal leave that they can use to take care of themselves or their sick children. And without paid time off, these workers often cannot participate in activities at their children’s school or day care center, which limits their ability to keep up with their children’s special needs or accomplishments.
Low-income workers are also most likely to work nonstandard hours, meaning they work most of their hours on the weekends or from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. on weekdays, outside of the usual work day. Sixty percent of workers with nonstandard hours work in low-wage jobs. Parents working nonstandard hours have a difficult time finding stable childcare arrangements because few child care centers operate much outside standard work hours and even fewer are open on weekends.
When child care centers are not available, parents often rely on relatives or neighbors, but these informal arrangements tend to break down at the most inconvenient times. This leaves parents with a choice of not showing up for work or leaving a child alone or in a makeshift child care situation. But children strive on a regular schedule and a consistent set of caregivers. The instability they feel by being at home without a parent or being bounced from caregiver to caregiver can be distressing.
Job loss can bring instability to children’s lives
If parents decide that their child’s developmental, health, or emotional needs come first in a crisis situation, they put their job at risk. Whether they lose their jobs with or without cause, low-wage workers face unemployment more often than other workers and are less likely to receive unemployment compensation when they lose their jobs.
When parents lose their jobs, they may no longer be able to afford child care or pay rent. Some may double up with other family members or friends, which could involve moving to another neighborhood and a different school. While this means that children still have a roof overhead, the instability and change can be very disconcerting and lead to lower school performance or emotional problems.
What can policy do?
Policies to address the instability generated by low-wage work have been slow in coming. One area where we’ve seen development is housing instability. The McKinney-Vento Act requires school districts to allow homeless children, including those who are doubling up, to stay in their school throughout the academic year and receive transportation to and from school if necessary.
While this is progress, the change in the law is not sufficient to ensure that children get these services. The law does not require school districts to ask families about housing changes, it only requires that they provide the services should parents ask for them. But many parents and children are reluctant to admit to the economic stress they might be living under and so do not ask for help.
As imperfect as McKinney-Vento is, however, it is a step in the right direction to stabilize the situations in which children in low-income families might find themselves. But more is needed. We don’t lack for ideas about what to do, we lack the will to carry them out.
Photo: Maggie Barcellano, who lives with her father, enrolled in the food stamps program to help save up for paramedic training while she works as a home health aide and raises her daughter. Working-age people now make up the majority in U.S. households that rely on food stamps, a switch from a few years ago when children and the elderly were the main recipients. (AP Photo/Tamir Kalifa)