Well-Being of Children in Working Poor and Other Families: 1997 and 2004: Research Brief. Discussion

09/01/2008

The well-being of children in working poor families improved between 1997 and 2004 for 10 of the 15 measures included in the Survey of Income and Program Participation. Moreover, the well-being of children in working poor families was better than the well-being of children in non-working poor families for 12 of 17 measures  in sharp contrast with findings for 1997 which indicated that children in working poor families had an advantage in only two measures and a disadvantage in four.(5)

It is also well established that the employment rate of single mothers substantially increased around the time of and immediately after welfare reform legislation was passed in 1996.

At the time welfare reform was implemented in 1997, there was concern that increased work by mothers, in response to the work requirements imposed by the new Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, might lead to deterioration for measures of child well-being, since mothers would have less time available to spend with their children.  While work effort of single mothers did indeed increase, the findings reported here suggest instead that many child well-being measures have improved for working poor families.  Deterioration of child well-being measures was confined to the children in non-working poor families.

Because we were concerned that some of the differences in well-being between children in working poor families and children in non-working poor families might be due to differences between these two groups in their composition by parental education, race/ethnicity, family structure, and parental age, we performed analyses for selected measures(6) of well-being in which these variables were controlled.  For 10 of the 13 measures subjected to these analyses, differences that were statistically significant in Tables 1-3 were also significant in the analyses after these variables were controlled.(7)  Our analyses indicate that most of the differences in child well-being between children in working poor families and children in non-working poor families are not due to differences in the composition of these groups by parental education, race/ethnicity, family structure, and parental age.  These findings are consistent with considerable research indicating that, after infancy, maternal employment is not related to poorer development for children and, indeed, is often related to better child outcomes for lower income women.(8) Nevertheless, we note that causal conclusions based on these data are not possible because the data are not experimental, and numerous other social and economic changes were occurring over these same years.

In conclusion, our findings suggest that increased work effort by poor families is not associated with deteriorating child outcomes and indeed is more consistent with the reverse  that increased work effort is associated with improved child outcomes.

Table 1.
Percentage of children by overweight status, gifted student status, grade repetition status, and school suspension/expulsion status of children by family work and poverty status, 1997 and 2004
1997 Non-working poor families(A) Working poor families(A) Working families,
100-200% poverty(A)
Working families,
>200% poverty(A)
All
Children(E)
Overweight 6%   8%   6%   5%   n/a
Gifted student 12% * 9% * 13%   20% * n/a
Ever repeated a grade 13% * 11%   10%   6%   n/a
Ever suspended/expelled from school 19%   16%   12%   9%   n/a
2004 Non-working poor families(B) Working poor families Working families,
100-200% poverty(C)
Working families,
>200% povertyd(D)
All
Children
Weighted Percentages 9%   13%   19%   59%   100%
 
Overweight n/a   n/a   n/a   n/a   n/a
Gifted student 9% * 14%   13%   23% * 19%
Ever repeated a grade 17% * 10%   10%   6% * 9%
Ever suspended/expelled from school 21% * 14%   14%   8% * 11%
(A) Comparison between the 1997 data and the 2004 data
(B) Comparison between the working poor families category and the poor families not meeting work standard category
(C) Comparison between the working poor families category and the working families, 100-199% poverty
(D) Comparison between the working poor families category and the working families, >200% poverty
(E) Analyses on "All Children" were not done in 1997
* p<.05
+ p<.10
Sources: Child Trends tabulations of 1996 and 2004 Surveys of Income and Program Participation
Table 2.
Selected family measures related to how well a child is likely to develop, by family work and poverty status, 1997 and 2004
1997
Index
(range)
Non-working poor families(A) Working poor families(A) Working families,
100-200% poverty(A)
Working families,
>200% poverty(A)
All
Children(E)
Television rules (0-3) 2.16   2.14   2.20   2.16 * n/a
Meals with mother (0-14) 10.04   9.61 * 9.79 + 9.83 * n/a
Meals with father (0-14) 8.97 * 8.42 * 8.30   7.97 * n/a
Parental aggravation (0-12) 9.19 * 9.32 * 9.49 * 9.48 * n/a
Father involvement (0-12) 7.85 * 7.61 * 7.85 * 8.15 * n/a
Maternal involvement (0-12) 8.56 * 8.61 * 8.79 * 9.03 * n/a
Living apart from parents
Has lived apart from parents 5% * 6%   6% * 5% * n/a
2004
Index
(range)
Non-working poor families(B) Working poor families Working families,
100-200% poverty(C)
Working families,
>200% poverty(D)
All
Children
Television rules (0-3) 2.16   2.20   2.20   2.24 + 2.21
Meals with mother (0-14) 10.11   10.04   9.94   9.93   9.97
Meals with father (0-14) 9.58 * 8.81   8.27 * 8.21 * 8.31
Parental aggravation (0-12) 9.43 * 9.76   9.88 + 9.86 + 9.84
Father involvement (0-12) 9.42   9.29   9.24   9.69 * 9.57
Maternal involvement (0-12) 9.55 + 9.66   9.73   10.03 * 9.90
Living apart from parents
Has lived apart from parents 7% + 6%   5% * 4% * 5%
Mother's educational aspirations for child
Less than college graduate 17% * 12%   11%   6% * 9%
College graduate 58%   61%   62%   60%   60%
More education and training after college 24% * 27%   27%   34% * 31%
Father's educational aspirations for child
Less than college graduate 17%   14%   11% * 6% * 9%
College graduate 58%   54%   62% * 60% * 59%
More education and training after college 25% * 31%   26% * 34% + 32%
A Comparison between the 1997 data and the 2004 data
B Comparison between the working poor families category and the poor families not meeting work category
C Comparison between the working poor families category and the working families, 100-199% poverty
D Comparison between the working poor families category and the working families, >200% poverty
E Analyses on "All Children" were not done in 1997
* p<.05
+ p<.10
Sources: Child Trends tabulations of 1996 and 2004 Surveys of Income and Program Participation
Table 3.
Selected community measures related to how well a child is likely to develop, by family work and poverty status, 1997 and 2004
1997
Index
(range)
Non-working poor families(A) Working poor families(A) Working families,
100-200% poverty(A)
Working families,
>200% poverty(A)
All
Children(E)
Extracurricular activities (0-3) 0.57   0.58 * 0.77   1.18   n/a
School engagement (0-6) 4.70   4.75 * 4.79 * 4.96 * n/a
Parent's positive attitude toward community (0-20) 12.55 + 13.44   13.66 * 14.73   n/a
Parent's negative attitude toward community (0-8)(F) 3.79   4.18 * 4.30   4.96   n/a
School attendance
Ever attended kindergarten 83% * 83% * 85% * 89%   n/a
Enrolled in private school 4%   4% * 7% * 13% * n/a
Religious affiliation 2%   3% * 5% * 10% * n/a
2004
Index
(range)
Non-working poor families(B) Working poor families Working families,
100-200% poverty(C)
Working families,
>200% poverty(D)
All
Children
Extracurricular activities (0-3) 0.56 * 0.75   0.77   1.18 * 0.97
School engagement (0-6) 4.76 * 4.94   5.01   5.07 * 5.03
Parent's positive attitude toward
community (0-20)
12.21 * 13.42   13.29   14.63 * 14.02
Parent's negative attitude toward community (0-8)(F) 3.80 * 4.39   4.26 + 4.93 * 4.64
School attendance
Ever attended kindergarten 86%   86%   88% + 89% * 88%
Enrolled in private school 4% * 7%   6%   11% * 9%
Religious affiliation 2% * 5%   4%   9% * 7%
A Comparison between the 1997 data and the 2004 data
B Comparison between the working poor families category and the poor families not meeting work standard category
C Comparison between the working poor families category and the working families, 100-199% poverty
D Comparison between the working poor families category and the working families, >200% poverty
E Analyses on "All Children" were not done in 1997
F Lower scores indicate more negative attitudes
* p<.05
+ p<.10
Sources: Child Trends tabulations of 1996 and 2004 Surveys of Income and Program Participation

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