Low-Wage Jobs Don’t Just Harm Workers — They Harm Their Children

The recent report by the Pew Research Center that births per every 1000 American women have dropped to historic lows kicked off a flurry of concern amongst conservatives that American culture is beginning to undervalue the future. However, that concern ignores the rather dismal job the country’s economy is doing to care for the children Americans are already having — and the way conservative policy preferences are exacerbating the problem. In particular, Amanda Marcotte flagged a recent round-up of studies at The American Prospect detailing the ways low-wage jobs not only harm the workers who hold them, but can harm the children of those workers as well.

One out of every five children ages 12 to 17 currently live in a low-income family — one making twice the federal poverty level or less. And as the recent round of labor protests against Walmart and the fast food industry highlighted, two out of every three jobs the United States is predicted to produce over the next decade will be low-wage and will not require more than a high school diploma. The proliferation of low-wage work as an ever greater share of America’s job supply can have all sorts of damaging effects on the country’s future generations, as the paper found:

Low-wage work prevents parents from participating in their children’s development. Many low-income parents face longer hours, unusual hours, inflexible schedules, and lack benefits such as paid sick days, paid medical and parental lave, and vacation. This prevents them from providing the same attention and care to their children as higher income parents — often forcing a choice between their family and their income. They’re often less able to involve themselves in their child’s schooling, or to even ensure the child regularly attends class and completes homework. The kinds of jobs to which low-income parents are constrained are even associated with higher levels of depression, which of course effects the emotional health of the family as a whole.

Children of low-wage parents are often forced into the labor market early themselves. Bringing in enough money for the family to make ends meet can often force low-income youth themselves into the labor market prematurely, which can damage their socialization, development, and schoolwork. While studies of the effect of work on youth is mixed — with some positive results in terms of experience, literacy, and positive social influences — multiple investigations have also found a negative correlation between how much young people work at a job and how well they perform in high school. In one investigation of teens who dropped out of high school, 29 percent cited family concerns as a reason for leaving. The demands placed on low-wage parents can force their children into roles caring for other family members at a young age, or to take care of themselves.

Children of low-wage parents are more likely to face educational difficulties. Low-income youth are three times more likely to drop out of high school than middle-class youth, and six times as likely as young people from high-income families. Less than half of low-income youth between the ages of 18 and 24 remain consistently involved in school or connected to the labor market. As for higher education, a 2010 paper found that three quarters of students listed their family as “their top source for college support” and “the place they turn most for help” — precisely the kind of support low-wage work can prevent a parent from providing.

These trade-offs can trap parents in economic or familial hardship. Often times, advancing out of low-wage jobs requires an employee to take on longer or more unusual hours — something parents are less able to do. Thus a feedback loop begins in which low-wage parents must sacrifice the developmental needs of their children to raise the family’s standard of living, or in which parents refuse offers of higher-paying jobs precisely because they do not want to leave their children without the attention they need.

Children of low-wage parents are more at risk for health problems. Children of low-income parents are more likely to suffer from obesity, and female teenagers in low-income families are more likely to become pregnant, again largely because of how the demands of low-wage work can hamper parental involvement in their children’s lives.

All these effects are particualrly pronounced for minority, immigrant, and single-parent families. The paper — by Lisa Dodson at Boston College and Randy Albelda at the University of Massachusetts, along with Diana Salas Coronado and Marya Mtshali — recommends policy responses including more paid sick and parental leave for workers, more vacation time, more schedule flexibility for workers, and efforts to increase hourly wages.