Published in the Spring 2009 issue of SSA Magazine

Does parents' low-wage work impact children's health?

-Patti Wolter

Faced with a morning surprise of a child with a fever, working parents everywhere have a handful of furtive choices: take sick time, flex the work day, extend lunch hours, or, admittedly, dose the kid with Tylenol and hope he makes it through the day. A single mother in a low-income job may not even have all these options, and also faces issues that can range from a lack of health insurance to simply managing the logistics of multiple work schedules and doctors' office hours.

How parental work impacts children is well-studied—but largely from the perspective of children's socio-emotional and cognitive development. Heather D. Hill, an assistant professor at the School, is asking a fundamentally different set of questions about parental work and children's health, particularly in low-income families.

"I want to look at the context of employment and the characteristics of low-wage work: hours, access to paid sick leave and paid vacation, what's required of workers on the job," Hill explains. "These may affect family schedules and routines, how much time parents have with kids, how stressed out they are. It may be that some jobs make it hard to maintain regular eating and sleeping schedules, for example."

Hill's interest stems from her recent doctoral work at Northwestern University, where her research on welfare reform programs suggested that increased employment had only small and age-specific effects on young children in terms of their later behavior and academic achievement. She now wants to take data on parents' work lives and combine it with data about children's health insurance coverage, preventative health care, and health outcomes, such as illness, accidents, and obesity.

Hill points out that the potential benefits of parental employment for children's health come from earnings and health insurance coverage. If jobs pay low wages and offer no health coverage, the negatives could outweigh the positives. "It may be that a lot of parents are quite good at managing work, so it doesn't affect children's health," she says. "But there are lots of questions about how parents negotiate these demands on their time and health behaviors at home."

As the economic crisis worsens, Hill's questions become more pertinent. Policy discussions already underway— including proposed changes to the Earned Income Tax Credit and state Unemployment Insurance programs, as well as efforts to pass legislation that would mandate paid sick leave for employees of private companies—may take on a new light when long-term children's health is also part of the equation.