Countering fears that children would be hurt by the sweeping welfare reform act passed in 1996, this study of 2,402 families in Chicago, San Antonio and Boston showed that if the mother goes back to work, it had no effect on preschoolers. The research appears in the March 7 issue of Science.
The numbers also pointed to some evidence that youngsters aged 10 to 14 years old have less anxiety, are less depressed and aggressive, are better able to learn, and cut drug and alcohol use when the mother returns to work, says lead researcher Lindsay Chase-Lansdale. Children aged 5 to 9 weren't included in the study because the research budget wouldn't allow it.
"It's reassuring, based on this study, that the basic thrust of welfare reform is not as harmful as people thought it would be," Chase-Lansdale says.
The low-income families were an accurate reflection of who lives in the inner city, says Chase-Lansdale. The racial mix, whether two parents or just one headed the family, if they were on welfare and other criteria were balanced to make this study reflect real life as much as possible. For instance, 6 percent were white and other races; the rest of the families were almost evenly split between black and Hispanic. The researchers studied the families over 16 months, evaluating such things as reading skills, behavior problems, distress, anxiety, substance use and other areas.
Even though this study raises a hopeful note, it has major drawbacks. The families were studied in a soaring economy when getting employment was relatively easy for the unskilled and wages were fairly high.
"The economic boom is a really important qualifier," Chase-Lansdale says. She doesn't know if the results will hold up over a long period of a stagnating economy.
Also, because they followed the families for only 16 months, from 1999-2001, the researchers can't tell whether the children will have problems as they grow into their teen years. Other studies that have looked at older teens have found the mother's going back to work had negative effects.
There are two theories, says Sandra L. Hofferth, a professor of family studies at the University of Maryland. Kids do better because the mothers have more discipline and structure in their lives, and they have more money. On the other hand, stresses such as getting good child care or juggling work and family can mean that going back to work may be worse on the children. "It can go either way," Hofferth says.
In the study, why was there no harm? It may be a tradeoff, say the researchers. More money in the family may make up for less time spent with the youngest children. When it came to older children, though, the mother didn't spend that much less time with the teen.
For instance, when mothers went back to work, preschoolers saw their mothers 2.1 hours less each day; older children lacked her only about 45 minutes more each day.
The mothers compensated for the time apart by cutting down on sleep, leisure activities, volunteerism and other activities that didn't involve their children, says the study.
Money may have also been key. In the beginning of the study, the average income was about $12,200 for a family of four. After the mother went back to work, the household income rose to about $21,000. The poverty level in 1999 was about $17,000 for a family of four.
"The next important steps are to understand why some children are doing really well, and why some are not," says Chase-Lansdale.
Verbal and other skills may improve because the youngest children are in good quality day care, says Hofferth, adding that Chase-Lansdale's work was "definitely an excellent study." They might have more stimulation, and, too, the mothers might be less depressed, making for a happier home life.