The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Winter
2010

Mom’s Income, Junior’s Illness


Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson


When Mother finds employment outside the home, she is likely to spend part of her paycheck on medical care for her young child. The relationship between a mother’s employment and her child’s illness receives scrutiny in a study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Baruch College in New York. That relationship may prompt new questions about the social costs of the movement of young mothers into the paid workforce.

When the authors of the study parse data for a national sample of young children and their mothers, they discern a clear but provocative linkage: “The incidence of infectious disease is higher among children of working mothers than among children of nonworking mothers,” with the gap being particularly pronounced for one-year-olds (p.05 for respiratory problems and ear infections). Further analysis establishes “a dose-response” relationship between maternal employment and two-year-old children’s illnesses: that is, among two-year-olds, the more their mother works outside the home, the more illnesses their children suffer.

The researchers recognize that they have just produced findings likely to arouse controversy among today’s politically correct professoriate. Perhaps as a consequence, they deploy sophisticated statistical models that take into account various background circumstances. Such models can help deflect attention away from maternal employment per se. Indeed, these models strongly implicate nonmaternal child care, particularly institutional daycare, as the reason that children of employed mothers experience more illnesses than do children cared for at home by their non-employed mothers. “On average,” the researchers report, “substitute care increases the incidence of respiratory illness relative to maternal care. In other words, the ‘quality’ of nonmaternal child care, as measured by incidence of respiratory illness, is lower than the ‘quality’ of maternal child care, and this quality shortfall is mainly associated with center-based child care.”

Anyone familiar with epidemiological research will not be surprised that employed mothers expose their children to greater risk of illness by placing those children in daycare. Nonetheless, the way the researchers have framed their findings may raise a question or two. First, the scholars statistically separate out the effects of nonmaternal child care of the sort most employed mothers must use; then, they conclude in the body of their study that “maternal employment [per se] has few statistically significant adverse direct effects on the incidence of infectious disease . . . . Only in the case of intestinal problems did maternal employment [still] have a significant adverse effect.” Why then does the summary abstract for this study contain this categorical statement: “maternal employment itself has no significant adverse effects on the incidence of infectious disease”? Just how strong is the gravitational pull of feminist orthodoxy in the academy?

Fortunately, the scholars do resist ideological orthodoxy long enough to recognize, “If center care results in greater infection [among children], then this is a cost that should be considered in evaluations or policies intended to change a mother’s incentives to work.”

(Rachel A. Gordon, Robert Kaestner, and Sanders Korenman, “The Effects of Maternal Employment on Child Injuries and Infectious Disease,” Demography 44 [2007]: 307–33, emphasis added.)

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