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‘Leaning in’ hurts poor women when childcare is scarce

by | Jun. 22, 2016, 8:36 AM | Want more research news? Subscribe to our weekly newsletter »


Share this on Facebook Study: A lack of decent childcare makes having a job worse than unemployment for low-income women
Shot of a mother cradling her little baby boy


Poor moms who return to the workforce after a period of unemployment suffer significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety and physical symptoms of stress when they don’t have access to decent childcare, according to new research led by Vanderbilt sociology graduate student Anna Jacobs.

The study, “Employment Transitions, Child Care Conflict, and the Mental Health of Low-Income Urban Women With Children,” was published online June 22, and will be the Editor’s Choice selection in the July/August issue of Women’s Health Issues.


Anna Jacobs (Courtesy Anna Jacobs)

Much of the research on labor and health shows that having a job is generally good for you, said Jacobs, who studies labor law and policy. “We were interested in finding out whether that was always the case, and when employment might not be beneficial.”

Using longitudinal data from a series of Welfare, Children, and Families project surveys in Boston, Chicago and San Antonio, the researchers tracked the employment status and mental health of about 2,000 unemployed urban mothers and grandmothers raising at least one child under five from 1999-2001. During that time, approximately 38 percent of these women became employed, either on their own or as a condition of their welfare benefits.

As expected, the researchers saw a considerable improvement in the women’s mental health—but only for the approximately 80 percent who reported no problems arranging childcare.

For the remaining 20 percent who did experience childcare conflicts, the opposite occurred: Not only did their mental health not improve, it got worse. In fact, these women saw their mental health decline nearly as much as the mental health of women without childcare problems improved.


Adjusted mean changes in psychological distress, based on a woman’s employment status and childcare availability. Every symptom of distress increases significantly (red) when childcare is difficult to arrange, and declines significantly (green) when childcare is easily available. Blue indicates the rate of each symptom for unemployed women. (Jacobs, et al.)

Jacobs says it’s clear that a lack of childcare can significantly undermine the benefits of work. And while the data are old, welfare and workfare have not changed much since those surveys were first conducted. She and her colleagues conclude, “Policies that focus on moving low-income women off of government assistance and into paid work could be more effective if greater resources were devoted to quality childcare.”

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  • Marie

    This is all out of context of real lives. Point is, better policies that focus for once on rewarding caregivers – male and female (and their households) with proper recognition, status, respect and an end to the numerous penalties in pension, pay, fiscal penalties (etc ) suffered by them and their households would do wonders for the mental health of those caring for others. To call caregivers ‘unemployed’ is an insult too and no wonder carers suffer mental health issues when treated with such disdain as if they aren’t already working hard enough and contributing massively to the lives of individuals (young and old), to their families, communities and society – and also to the Economy.

  • Marie

    ‘Childcare’ would not be at all scarce if family care counted too (instead of only counting in GDP paid commercial transactions and £££££ signs ) and also if paid care providers (for the young and the elderly, sick and vulnerable) were paid a proper/decent salary for a hard day’s work reflecting the skill and training, the empathy, experience and aptitude necessary to do one of the most important (and most physcially and mentally demanding) roles in the world. A progressive society is a caring society – but unfortunately we’re going backwards by turning all human interactions into ones that are done by paid providers and making it virtually impossible for families to ‘be there’ for their loved ones. What kind of world are we building for future generations?