Chris Herbst

Chris Herbst

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The recent political jostling over stay-at-home and working mothers renewed the debate over the success of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, the U.S.’s main cash aid program, and the Child Care and Development Fund, which provides child care assistance to low-income families.

Shortly after these programs were enacted, in 1996, policymakers and pundits marveled at the historic decline in welfare caseloads. Apparently, the cure for dependence had been discovered.

Fast-forward to the contemporary debate, however, and you will notice the same obsession over whether cash aid recipients are working hard enough.

All of this ignores a deeper question: Does America’s welfare system help or hinder poor mothers’ ability to balance responsibilities inside and outside the home? In other words, are mothers happier and healthier, and do their children have the skills and temperament to succeed in school?

My research on low-income families suggests there is good news and bad news.

First, the good news. Using detailed surveys that track Americans’ happiness, I have found that single mothers are not an especially jovial group. And while this may not seem particularly surprising, something remarkable occurred over the last few decades: they became happier both absolutely and relative to other women. In fact, single mothers are one of the few demographic groups to experience a rise in happiness since the mid-1980s. What’s more, single mothers today report fewer regrets about the past, more optimism about the future, and greater financial satisfaction.

Together, welfare reform, investments in child care subsidies, and expansions to the Earned Income Tax Credit played a large role in closing the “happiness gap” between single mothers and other women. The happiness gap between single mothers and comparable childless women declined 60 percent over time, while that between single and married mothers declined 20 percent.

Now for the bad news. My colleague, Erdal Tekin, a professor of economics at Georgia State University, and I have studied the implications of the child care subsidy system for children’s well-being. This is a complex issue because subsidized care could enhance or harm child development. Since subsidies are typically used to purchase center-based care — which is known to promote child development — it is conceivable that subsidies positively influence children. However, eligibility for subsidized care is tied to a work requirement. If maternal employment disrupts the home environment, then subsidized care could inadvertently harm child well-being.

Unfortunately, we find that subsidies have negative effects on children. Subsidized children score lower on standardized tests of reading and math ability, reveal more behavior problems, and are more likely to be obese. Even more troubling is that mothers reveal more psychological and physical aggression toward their children.

Herein lies the paradox of the current social safety net: policies to promote work appear to be beneficial for low-skilled mothers, but they may be harmful to their children. Such concerns were voiced over a decade ago by opponents of welfare reform.

What steps should be taken to align the twin goals of enhanced maternal and child well-being?

First, the child care subsidy system should be overhauled by decoupling it from the cash assistance system and eliminating the work requirement. Subsidy policy should encourage children’s social and intellectual development, rather than being used as an instrument to increase maternal employment. In addition, child care benefits should be made more generous so that families can afford high-quality care. We have tried to do subsidy policy on-the-cheap, and the results are not positive. Finally, we need an expanded parental leave system and more leniency from the welfare work requirements for mothers with young children.

Policymakers would do well to abide by the common sense principle that social policy should make it easier for mothers to work simultaneously inside and outside the home. For while their work outside the home helps today’s economy, their work inside the home helps tomorrow’s economy.

• Chris M. Herbst is an assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University. Reach him at

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