Since modern welfare reform began in the 1980s, we have seen low-income parents leave the welfare rolls and join the workforce in large numbers. At the same time, the Earned Income Tax Credit has offered a monetary incentive for low-income parents to work. Thus, unlike some of the other two-generation mechanisms discussed in this issue of Future of Children, policies that encourage low-income parents to work are both widespread and well-entrenched in the United States.
But parents' (and especially mothers') work, writes Carolyn Heinrich, is not unambiguously beneficial for their children. On the one hand, working parents can be positive role models for their children, and, of course, the income they earn can improve their children's lives in many ways. On the other hand, work can impair the developing bond between parents and young children, especially when the parents work long hours or evening and night shifts. The stress that parents bring home from their jobs can detract from their parenting skills, undermine the atmosphere in the home, and thereby introduce stress into children's lives.
Unfortunately, it is low-income parents who are most likely to work in stressful, low-quality jobs that feature low pay, little autonomy, inflexible hours, and few or no benefits. And low-income children whose parents are working are more likely to be placed in inadequate child care or to go unsupervised. Two-generation approaches, Heinrich writes, could maximize the benefits and minimize the detriments of parents' work by expanding workplace flexibility, and especially by mandating enough paid leave so that mothers can breastfeed and form close bonds with their infants; by helping parents place their children in high-quality child care; and by helping low-income parents train for, find, and keep a well-paying job with benefits. (author abstract)