Working moms

Quality child care is critical to kids' development

What happens to children when their mothers go back to work?

In 1996, when welfare mothers were required to work full time to continue earning cash benefits, more women with young children entered the workforce than ever before. The National Academies of Science decided to examine the repercussions of this policy change and convened a national panel to study the issue.

kids playing in a giant truck tire

A national panel found that quality child care—not whether moms work—is critical for kids and their families.

Francine Jacobs, associate professor and chair of urban and environmental policy and planning and associate professor of child development, served on the committee, which studied not only the effects of the welfare changes but the implications of the Family and Maternal Leave Act of 1993.

The academy wanted to know, said Jacobs, if it was good or bad for children when their mothers went to work. "It also wanted to know who went to work? What kind of hours did they have and what sorts of jobs?"

National voices
Based in Washington, D.C., the National Academies of Science is a nonprofit organization that provides independent advice on science, technology and medicine by inviting participation from the nation's top scientists, engineers and other experts. Tufts' Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning (UEPP) has had a large presence on these committees, despite the department's small size. In addition to Jacobs, two members of the seven-person UEPP faculty recently have served on academy panels. Julian Agyeman, assistant professor, is currently on a panel that is studying transportation and radioactive waste, and Ann Rappaport, a lecturer, is serving on a committee concerned with the regulation and management of radioactive waste and another on innovation in remediation technologies. A fourth member of the faculty, Prof. James Jennings, served on two earlier panels, and Rappaport also served on a previous panel.

Jacobs' committee found that work itself was neither good nor bad for children. The factor that made a difference in the lives of children was the quality of child care they received.

If mothers go back to work soon after having a child and have to work long hours, Jacobs said, the committee found that those children do not do as well as other children. "Kids don't develop as quickly up through the first year. It has to do with the intimate relationship between the mother and child or the absence of that relationship. Or it may be that mothers are stressed and less responsive. We don't know. But it's an important finding because welfare legislation requires mothers to go back to full-time work 12 weeks after the birth of a child. Other countries understand it's to their advantage to have the earliest experiences of children protected, and we don't do that," she said.

More working moms
The panel found that about 80 percent of children ages 5 and under are in non-parental care for an average of nearly 40 hours each week. Maternal employment rates have risen dramatically over the past 30 years, increasing from 38 percent in 1970 to 68 percent in 2000. Among those women with children under age 1, 52 percent are working.

"A good deal of the increase," Jacobs said, "can be accounted for by low-income women because of federal policies."

Jacobs said that that low-income women tend to enter the lowest-paid and least-desirable positions, working from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. or from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. They are the most vulnerable to being laid off and have the least flexibility about managing their time around family responsibilities.

"The arrangements people have to make for child care are very complex, particularly for single parents," said Jacobs. "They have to get their children to school on time. They may have to travel long distances for job opportunities. So they are dealing with after-school arrangements and non-standard work hours, and it's a challenging and complicated work system."

Making the issue even more complex, she said, is the fact that where you live determines the amount of health insurance, sick leave, child care subsidies and transportation available because states offer different benefits for families.

"Some women are doing reasonably well, and some are doing poorly," she said. "The panel decided that the picture is not clear cut, that work is not necessarily good or bad. It's the context of maternal work that is critical in its effect on children. In some families, additional money makes a positive difference, and the role model of a parent working is good."

Quality care is key
Jacobs said that poor quality day care can be a negative influence on young children. For older children, a lack of supervision and a lack of activities can create problems. In addition, parents who cannot find good child care face the additional stress of worrying about their children as well as trying to do a good job at work.

The quality of child care, she said, is defined by the ratio of caregivers to children, the physical environment and outdoor play areas, as well as the curriculum, the training and experience of caregivers and the quality of the relationship between caregiver and child.

"The good news," she said, "is the child care community knows how to run quality child care." Jacob said the committee recommended a number of public policy options to expand the availability and affordability of child care and to increase its quality. "If we're going to require people to work, then we must provide child care of good quality," she said. "I know it sounds corny, but these children are the future of our country. As Congressman George Miller used to say about investing in children, 'You can pay now or you can pay later.' It's much better to pay now."