COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A new welfare reform plan pushed by the Republican majority in Congress would force 1.5 million welfare recipients to enroll in work programs by 2001.
But such a workfare program could prove harmful to children involved if it is not thoughtfully implemented, according to the authors of the new book Parents' Jobs and Children's Lives (Aldine De Gruyter, 1994).
"We found that the type of jobs parents have can have an important effect on their children," said co-author Toby Parcel. "The effects of jobs remain even after taking into account differences in parents' education and intellectual skills.
"Given that, we think it's legitimate to ask whether workfare jobs will be an asset or a hindrance to families."
Parcel and co-author Elizabeth Menaghan -- both professors of sociology at Ohio State University -- said their research suggests that children show greater intellectual development and fewer behavioral problems when their parents have jobs involving interesting and complex work.
"If workfare programs force parents into low-wage,
monotonous work with no chance for advancement, we expect their children would suffer as a result," Menaghan said.
On the other hand, if these entry level jobs lead to more interesting and better paid work later on, the effects on children could be positive. "We need to take a long term perspective in considering the costs and benefits of workfare programs," Parcel said.
Parents' Jobs and Children's Lives is based on interviews with more than 2,000 mothers nationwide conducted as part of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. The women in the NLSY were interviewed in 1979 when they were between 14 and 21 years old, and then re-interviewed in 1986 and 1988. The women were questioned on a broad range of topics including their education, occupation, and home environment. The NLSY, which is conducted by Ohio State's Center for Human Resource Research, also measured intellectual development and behavioral problems in the women's children. The study was funded by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development.
The issue of work and families has special relevance now with the recent election that gave Republicans a majority in the U.S. Congress. Many Republicans have endorsed a "Contract with America" that, among its proposals, would enroll welfare recipients in work programs. President Bill Clinton's counter-proposal also would require people on the welfare rolls for more than two years to join a work program.
Of course, work and family issues are broader than just those involving workfare. Parcel and Menaghan say federal social policies in a wide range of areas continue to lag behind the massive changes in the labor force that have occurred in the last 50 years. While 58 percent of women were in the workforce in 1992, many laws still assume that men have jobs outside the home and women stay with their children full time.
"We need to develop policies that will effectively support working parents in balancing the demands of work and family life," Menaghan said. For example, families need plans that allow parents to adjust their work schedules around family demands, or work from home when needed. While some companies already have such family-friendly programs, these are far from universal, the authors said.
Too often, debates about family-work topics end up as ideological battles that don't recognize the complexity of the issues involved, according to the authors.
"You often hear conservatives and liberals arguing whether mothers in the workforce are good for families, but there is no simple answer to that," Menaghan said. "Policymakers with either a liberal or conservative bent have to take the complexities of family life into account."
Some of these complexities include:
_ Mothers may help their children's intellectual development by staying home if they can only get routine, monotonous work. But the authors found that if mothers have interesting, challenging jobs, their children showed adverse intellectual effects if they don't go back to work soon after birth. "Debates about the wisdom of mothers working are seriously flawed if they don't consider the quality of jobs that the mothers can obtain," Parcel said.
_ While the focus of policymakers and commentators has been on mothers who work, Parcel's and Menaghan's research shows that fathers' employment also has a significant effect on children. Interesting, complex jobs for fathers, for example, help their children's development.
_ While good jobs for parents can help children, the researchers have found that children showed lower levels of intellectual development if both parents work a lot of overtime. Children also do worse if their fathers work less than full time.
_ Good occupational conditions for parents can help offset negative conditions in family life. For example, children whose parents were divorced did better when their mother had a more challenging, complex job.
_ Out-of-home child care showed no negative effects on children.
_ The quality of children's home environment is an important influence on intellectual development and behavior. "The time parents take to create a safe, intellectually stimulating and emotionally supportive home environment is time well spent," Parcel said.
All of these complexities make it impossible to develop simple rules to guide social policy, the authors said. "Any social policy solutions to the dilemmas facing many working parents need to be sensitive to the wide variety of conditions that families face," Menaghan said. "This doesn't make it easy for policymakers, but that's the difficulty they have to face."
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Contact: Toby Parcel, (614) 292-8448
Elizabeth Menaghan, (614) 292-6681 or 442-7340
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457
EDITOR'S NOTE: Reporters interested in a copy of Parents' Jobs and Children's Lives should contact Diana McDermott, marketing manager, Aldine de Gruyter, at (914) 747-0110.