School & District Management

Study Says Echoes of Single Moms’ Job Losses Can Linger in Children’s Lives

By Holly Kurtz — May 08, 2014 4 min read
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Employers who lay off a single mother may also be downsizing her child’s opportunities in life.

So suggest the results of a large study that compared long-term educational and psychological outcomes for the children of single mothers who lost their jobs with those who did not. The study, which is the subject of an article that appears the current issue of the peer-reviewed American Journal of Sociology, found that children of single mothers were 15 percent less likely to complete high school if mom lost her job during their first 17 years of life. They were 24 percent less likely to attend college and 33 percent less likely to graduate from college. They were also more likely to experience symptoms of depression into their late 20s.

The study did not compare children of single mothers who lost their jobs with children of married mothers who lost jobs. Rather, they compared children of single mothers who did and did not face unemployment at different points in time. But the authors write that, past research has found that, for married couples, maternal unemployment is less harmful to children than paternal unemployment. The reason is that there are “greater psychological consequences associated with employment and income loss among fathers who are largely expected to maintain the role of primary provider.”

Considering that more than 40 percent of the babies born in 2012 had unmarried mothers, this study of single mothers could have important implications.

“The findings are alarming, and they suggest we should be doing more to ensure that these children don’t get lost in the shuffle,” lead author Jennie Brand said in a news release from the University of California Los Angeles, where she is an associate professor of sociology and an associate director of the California Center for Population Research. “Through no fault of their own, they appear to be paying years down the line for their mothers’ employment issues.”

Brand and her co-author Juli Simon Thomas, a sociology doctoral student at UCLA, based their findings on nationally representative data from more than 6,000 mothers of about 11,500 children. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics started collecting the data on the mothers in 1979 and on the children in 1986. Data collection continues today. This data permitted the researchers to focus on a gap in academic knowledge, namely the long-term, inter-generational reverberations from layoffs of single moms.

Two of the more surprising findings of the study relate to the categories of children who suffer most when their single mothers lose their jobs.

One of these categories was age. "[D]evelopmental theory [suggests] critical consequences of socioeconomic adversity in early childhood,” the authors write. Yet they found no evidence that children under 5 were at risk of suffering long-term educational and psychological problems when their single moms lost their jobs. By contrast, children between the ages of 12 and 17 when the unemployment occurred were 40 percent less likely to graduate high school than were peers of those ages whose single moms did not lose their jobs. (Overall, children of laid-off single moms were 15 percent less likely to graduate high school.) The 12- to 17-year-olds were also 25 percent less likely to attend college and 45 percent less likely to graduate. Older children whose single moms lost their jobs were also more depressed in their 20s.

“The positive effects of mothers who are home to tend to their young children may counterbalance the negative effects and economic pressures associated with job loss,” Brand and Simon Thomas speculate. “Or the lengthy time elapsing between maternal displacement in early-childhood and young-adult outcomes may dilute, rather than strengthen, initial effects, at least for educational attainment. Or adolescents may enter the labor market when mothers lose jobs to partially offset family economic distress, and thus be less likely to continue their education.”

A second unexpected finding was that the less likely the mother was to lose her job, the more her children suffered. This meant children were more likely to experience long-term negative consequences, especially psychologically, when their downsized mothers had a stable employment history and were not laid off during a period of high unemployment either in the nation or in the region in which they lived. Brand and Simon Thomas noted that this aligns with past research that suggests that employees suffer more intensely when they lose their jobs while others around them are experiencing relative prosperity.

“Thus, although economic adversity is generally less for children of... mothers [less likely to lose their jobs] and those displaced in lower-unemployment contexts, such families lack referents to similarly strained families and a social norm of deprivation,” Brand and Simon Thomas write. “Mothers who have a high likelihood of displacement, by contrast, may expect more socioeconomic instability in their lives and be embedded in a social network in which income shocks and economic distress are normative experiences and less stigmatized as a result of individual failure, rendering the effects of displacement on their children less severe.”

In the UCLA news release, Brand said she hoped that her findings would be considered by policymakers as they make decisions about employment assistance and welfare.

“Debates about social assistance should acknowledge that involuntary job separation among single mothers has significant implications for the next generation,” she said.

Perhaps this study has a better chance than some of inserting itself into the real world. Brand is the lead author of multiple widely disseminated studies, including one that found that job loss can lead to decades of negative consequences for a worker’s social and community life and another that suggested that the students who are the least likely to attend college benefit most from their education.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.