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The link between low-wage earning parents and youth outcomes

By Nikki Yamashiro

Last week, the Center for Social Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston released a study that examines the effects of parents’ low-wage jobs on their children’s development and well-being.  Researchers found that in families where parents work in jobs earning an hourly wage less than two-thirds of the state median hourly wage, children drop out of school at higher rates, are more likely to experience health problems—such as obesity—and are more likely to have extra responsibilities that take time away from their studies, out-of-school activities and overall personal development. 

The report, “How Youth Are Put At Risk by Parents’ Low-Wage Jobs,” delves into the difficulties parents face when working in low-wage jobs, which often come with demanding work hours, less flexible schedules, few employer-based benefits and more job instability.  The authors write that these parents often have a hard time balancing the needs of their families with the demands of their employers.  Additionally, because of a lack of time, money and resources, parents find themselves unable to afford alternatives, such as meals that are both quick and healthy and services like child care.

The study finds that these challenges directly impact the children of these families—an estimated 3.6 million—in a number of negative ways.  Parents’ time constraints and inflexible work schedules when in a low-wage job take time away from family dinners, involvement with their child’s schooling and attention to their child’s everyday life.  Very much in the same vein as our issue brief released this past October, “Afterschool: A Key to Successful Parent Engagement,” the authors discuss the deep and influential relationship between children and parents.  The authors link the confluence of challenges faced by parents working in low-wage jobs to the increased likelihood of negative outcomes for children, including:

  • Becoming disengaged from school and dropping out,
  • Leading less healthy lives—such as exercising less and eating more unhealthy foods,
  • Becoming pregnant, and
  • Having less time to focus on their overall well-being. 

Although these findings are both alarming and disheartening, the authors do present a way forward.  One solution is the need for afterschool programs that provide youth from low-income households a safe and supervised environment, reinforce their academic development, encourage healthy activities, and give their working parents peace of mind.  Other recommendations in the report include greater collaboration between workforce and youth development advocates and more attention to workplace benefits for parents.

These findings strengthen the case that afterschool programs play an important role in the lives of children, especially those who are most vulnerable.  What’s more, when paired with the survey results from our report, “Uncertain Times 2012: Afterschool Programs Still Struggling in Today’s Economy,” which found afterschool programs across the country are struggling to meet the needs of children and families in their communities, we see that there is also a need for greater investment in afterschool at all levels—federal, state, local and private.