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Parents' Low Wage Jobs Can Harm Their Kids, Says Sociologist

“Our country is treating workers like a commodity,” says Dodson (shown above with graduate student Marya Mtshali, left, who aided her research project). “With low-wage work projected to account for two of every three new jobs in the US over the next decade, this is a mainstream problem, not a problem in the margins.” (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Kathleen Sullivan | Chronicle Staff

Published: Dec. 13, 2013

Parents’ low-wage jobs can harm their children’s health, education and overall development according to a new report co-authored by Sociology Research Professor Lisa Dodson.

Some 16 million US families are headed by parents employed in low-wage jobs, such as cashiers, nurses’ aides, janitors, salespeople, food servers, and elder care attendants. Dodson and co-author Randy Albelda, a professor of economics from the University of Massachusetts-Boston, found that adolescents in these families are seven times more likely to drop out of school than are higher income youth, more likely to be among the one in five American teens who are obese, and are far more likely to become parents in their teen years.

“How Youth are Put at Risk by Parents’ Low-Wage Jobs” presents the first-ever overview of the relationship between the status of youth and their parents’ low-wage jobs. Graduate student Marya Mtshali worked with Dodson on the report.

“What we found is that parents’ work and young people’s lives are profoundly linked,” said Dodson. “And yet, very little attention has been paid to this interaction.”

Adolescents need resources, stability, and parental attention to support their wellbeing, to do well in school, be safe, and move on to pursue healthy lives. But their parents’ low-wage jobs are also low-quality jobs, with few job benefits, unreliable schedules, and little flexibility that would allow these parents to tend to their children’s needs, according to the authors.

“Our country is treating workers like a commodity,” said Dodson. “With low-wage work projected to account for two of every three new jobs in the US over the next decade, this is a mainstream problem, not a problem in the margins.”

For example, the study cites that parental involvement is a key ingredient to student success in school. Yet this involvement, which ranges from monitoring homework to meeting with teachers and volunteering for school activities, is the very thing parents with low-wage jobs have difficulty doing. Their non-standard work schedules and lack of paid time off are obstacles, said Dodson.

“We need to change the narrative in this country, where we see parents who are not as involved and say they are inadequate,” she said. “It may be that they are working hard so their kids have basics, like heat and food.”

The legend of personal irresponsibility, as opposed to the impact of low-wage, low-quality jobs, continues to dominate policy debate and the public imagination, according to the authors.

In terms of the obesity risk, the study points to a number of reasons. Parents in low-wage jobs are often not home at mealtime to make nutritious breakfasts or dinners. They also can’t afford to enroll their children in afterschool sports or extracurriculars that keep kids active. Instead, adolescents stay inside and watch television as a version of self-care.

Another area of concern for Dodson is the “adultification” of youth in low-income families. “It can be a nightmare for some low-income families to manage life on a daily basis and sometimes the last person standing is a 12-year-old,” she said. They are thrust into taking care of younger siblings or into elder care, diverting time and attention from their schooling, extracurricular activities, and personal development.

Dodson said she hopes the study, funded by the Ford Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, will underscore the point that behind every parent working in a low-wage job, there is a child who is being negatively affected. She also wants to spur advocacy groups who work for child and youth development and those who work for better jobs and employment benefits to work together as allies to improve policies and programs.

The authors identify specific, current policy initiatives that could improve children and youth outcomes, including efforts to promote job benefits and sick leave, allow more flexibility for all working parents, and increase hourly wages. Dodson and Albelda say there is a critical need for programs and resources for low-income youth – as well as young children — including after-school programs, summer programs, and other opportunities that ensure young people whose parents are away from home working still get adult attention, thus supporting their academic progress and health, and also protecting youth from having to grow up too fast.

The study is available online at /bc_org/rvp/pubaf/12/Youth_Report.pdf