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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Limited Resources, Little Time: Work, Family, and Childcare Challenges Facing Low-Income Households

  • Author(s): Hepburn, Peter
  • Advisor(s): Smith, Sandra S
  • et al.

This dissertation consists of three papers that deal with questions of work scheduling, childcare, and the changing experiences of American families, particularly low-income families. The broader theme linking these papers is a focus on labor markets as a field of inequality and intergenerational stratification. There is a growing socioeconomic divide in the sorts of schedules that employees work; even taken by itself this rising inequality would merit attention. A large body of research, however, gives us cause to believe that work scheduling has significant spillover effects for family functioning and children’s well-being and development. I demonstrate the extent to which parents—particularly low-income single mothers and dual-earner couples—are increasingly exposed to potentially detrimental schedules and how these schedules in turn affect the care their children receive. This suggests a situation of compounding or cumulative disadvantage: not only are less-educated and lower-income parents working worse sorts of schedules, but their families and their children pay downstream costs. It is important to understand this as one of the multiple pathways through which less-advantaged children’s life chances are curtailed.

In the first paper of this dissertation, I analyze changes over time in parental working schedules. American working conditions have deteriorated over the last 30 years; one commonly-invoked change is the rise of nonstandard and unstable work schedules. Such schedules negatively affect family functioning and the well-being and development of children. The evidence that such schedules are actually increasing in prevalence is, however, quite thin. In this paper, I describe and compare the work schedules of American parents in single-mother and two-partner households in 1990 and 2012. I analyze the schedules of both working and non-working parents and partners, which allows me to address changes in work scheduling—in terms of type, duration, and variability—over time without succumbing to selection problems that are common in research on working parents. I find that nonstandard work has become slightly more common in both single-mother and two-partner households; both types of household experience considerably greater within-week schedule variability in 2012 than they did in 1990. Changes can be explained by neither shifts in population composition nor by concentration of such schedules in the service sector, as is commonly assumed. Instead, it appears that nonstandard and variable work schedules are growing more common regardless of individuals characteristics.

The second paper analyzes relationships between parental working schedules and several aspects of childcare arrangements for young children in low-income single-mother and two-partner households. The 2012 National Survey of Early Care and Education (NSECE) is used to develop work schedule typologies and evaluate relationships between schedules and the use of center-based, home-based, and relative care; continuity of care; and complexity of care (a new measure introduced as an alternative to care multiplicity). Nonstandard schedules are associated with increased childcare complexity, decreased continuity, and the types of care that children receive in single-mother households but less so in two-partner households. In two-partner households the largest effects are in households in which both partners work standard schedules; children in these households receive more non-parental care and are in more complex childcare arrangements than their peers. Findings point to the cumulative disadvantage accruing to the children of single mothers, especially those working nontraditional shifts.

The dissertation’s third paper analyzes work scheduling and schedule coordination of American, dual-earner couples with children at two points in time (1990 and 2012). The literature on schedule coordination presumes that couples coordinate working schedules so as to maximize joint leisure. Research on childcare choice, however, highlights the experience of a subset of parents who work non-overlapping schedules so as to minimize reliance on non-parental care. This suggests two contrasting scheduling logics with differing expressions of “coordination.” Analyses demonstrate considerable socioeconomic variations in couples’ observed schedule type, with lower-income and less-educated couples more likely to work non-overlapping schedules. Contingent on schedule type, however, socioeconomic variations in schedule coordination are limited. Contrary to expectations, no evidence is found for declining schedule coordination over time.

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