On: September 16, 2021

Researchers find that low-income parents were able to spend more time with their kids—in most cases–and kids loved it.

As the latest labor force updates show, the country is heading back to work, which is great news for families and children as household incomes begin to steady once again.

No doubt it was a tough year for everyone, but especially lower-income working parents who tend to work in jobs that were shuttered by the pandemic, like restaurants and retail. Compounding the struggles, schools and child care centers closed down, leaving families—largely mothers–scrambling to fill the gaps on their own. As the news reports put it, American’s mothers were suffering.

But were they? A recent study by University of Chicago researchers adds some nuance to that claim. The researchers surveyed low-income parents of preschool-age children in Chicago between May 3 and July 20, 2020 and find that, in some cases, parents were not feeling stressed and instead were enjoying the time they had to spend with their children. And the children benefited.

Government stimulus helped families enjoy the time with their kids

As the survey showed, low-income parents who lost their job but not their income—likely because of the various government-provided emergency supports–had more positive relationships with their children, and the children enjoyed the time with their parents as well.

More time with their children was a particular joy for mothers with the least education. The researchers find that mothers with no college degree reported higher scores for happiness and meaningfulness when spending time with their children relative to mothers with a college degree.

That’s excellent news for low-income families because as past research has shown, low-income parents are often able to spend less time with their children–about 200 fewer hours a year than parents with more education.

But, but… There’s an important caveat, however. Those parents who lost both their job and income were significantly more likely to report depressive symptoms and more life stress, which in turn strained their relationships with their children.

Extra income helps families plan for a new future of work

The linchpin in these findings is income. When families had time and a steady income, parenting was easier and more enjoyable. That’s one reason why the Family Health Project is giving an extra $400 a month to a group of low-income mothers in Lynn, Mass.—soon to expand to another group this fall. We know the extra cushion in the family budget means good things for children.

That extra money may become even more critical as jobs disappear and retraining becomes the key to advancement for low-income working mothers like those in Lynn and elsewhere.

Post-COVID, many jobs, and particularly those in the low-wage sector, are unlikely to return, according to experts. And while inevitably there will be new types of jobs to fill in, experts worry they will not be enough to fully offset the losses. The result: 25% more workers than previously estimated will need to switch occupations.

Yet retraining for a new occupation costs money. Few employers offer on-the-job training, and the federal workforce training system is a tangled, uncoordinated mess, leaving to the worker the bulk of the responsibility to figure out what to train for and how.

Money, even a little extra, can help. Perhaps the $400 we are providing parents can help them take the time to find a new, and better, job, one that allows them more time with their children—who clearly love it when mom and dad have the time.