Last updated: March 22, 2019
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The following research paper will reflect an analysis of the literature or peer reviewed articles that approach the subject of the low paid single mother.  The issues that pertain to this such as the demographic, the effects on household including gender roles and children’s identity will also be analyzed in a sociological mindset.  The problems extant in the system of welfare and the welfare to work programs will also be examined as they pertain to the subject of the low paid working mother.  Other sociological issues such as minor points in economics reviewed across the country and research inclusive of healthcare will be given due consideration in the research presented in this paper.















Presentation of the Problem

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The low paid working mother has a series of undeniable questions raised in a sociological context,

Can mothers simultaneously work outside the home and raise children?  The strong bias toward specialization in the family leads to conclusions about dual roles similar to those of Spock.  The lack of programs might also be explained by a strong ideological preference for individualism among Americans.  According to Schorr, the American family is a highly individualized institution built around a foundation of individual preferences and promoted to satisfy individual needs.  To the extent that maternal employment is viewed as a private and family matter, it has not been an attractive subject for American public policy which has historically avoided dealing with private matters (Farel and Dobelstein 283).


The parental transition from welfare to work strongly affects children.  The low paid single mother is presented with the government issue of welfare and its stipulations or the low paid single mother is also given the choice to earn wages but still remains part of the poverty demographic.  The problems then arise in a sociological perspective in reference to the well-being of the child on issues such as health, education, and parental control, as Parcel and Menaghan state, “…employment contributes to a family’s financial wellbeing, especially when the mother’s wages make the difference between dependence on welfare and self-sufficiency…poorly paid, stressful jobs with long hours can jeopardize the quality of parenting by their demands on parents’ time, energy, and attention…the positive and negative working conditions that mothers experience on the job are reflected in the home environments they create for their children”. (116-117).   The issue of the low paid working mother then becomes a reference point for the discussion of the dual role of a woman as a mother and as a employee.  The stipulations for time and energy between these two identities is increasingly prevalent as it applies to how mothers view governmental systems such as welfare and the average mean by which low paid mothers dedicate their time to their dual roles.

“Children develop within families, especially in their early years, and therefore, family organization and well-being are likely to affect child outcomes.  Research has shown that children’s immediate family environments are potent sources of both intellectual and emotional learning” (Parcel and Menaghan 117).  The above statement should register a warning; that warning includes the sociological impact of the low paid working mother on the cognitive abilities of her child(ren).  Parcel and Menaghan present the Home Observation for Measurment of the Environment (HOME) in which several aspects of the home environment are juxtaposed with the mother’s working environment and responsibilities to each.  This measurement focuses on the home’s safety and cleanliness and the appropriate amount of stimulation necessary in the rearing of a child(ren).

The mother’s time in dedication to such stimulation while maintaining a job, be it full or part time is an essential dynamic to the dual role of mother and worker.  The low paid mother often times finds herself making fulfillments both economically, emotionally, etc. to her child(ren) while also dedicating her time to a low wage job, and therein lies a debate of the possibility of fulfillment by a mother for her child(ren) while holding either or (full or part time job).  The HOME measurement does not encompass such a dynamic (but this subject will be broached again later in the research) but it does offer the elements of the home as essential to the life of the child, “…cognitive performance and academic achievement…” (Parcel and Menaghan 117) being chief among the time dedication a mother may provide while maintaining a job.

There are also other characteristics that affect the relationship pattern between low paid working mother and her family, which as Parcel and Menaghan state are, “…the number of siblings, the child’s physical health, and the mother’s self-esteem, age, and education…as the number of children in the family increases, so do the behavioral problems and intellectual difficulties of the children” (117).  Thus, the research spans from the focus of the singular entity of the low paid mother to incorporate the multidimensionality of the family unit and the relations between the two and the environment which exists in such a dynamic.  The environment that a mother provides elicits social experiences for the family by which they will measure future relationships and the child(ren’s) future prospects in life.  This aspect may or may not increase the amount of stress for the low paid single mother.

Parcel and Menaghan state that there are different parental effects on children of low paid single mothers, “Three elements of working conditions that affect family life can be differentiated: wage levels, work hours, and occupational complexity.  Wage levels are important because they indicate the material support parents can bring to the household” (118).  Mothers who remain unmarried and who are the breadwinners of the family face these three working conditions without outside support.  The effects on the child(ren) of single mothers who are employed depend on wages and the occupational complexity of the mother’s job.  Starting a high-wage job that was simultaneously high in complexity did no foreseeable detrimental damage to the quality of children’s home environment.  However, on the opposite side of the spectrum is the low wage mother starting a low wage job of low complexity proves to be problematic.  The home environment quality depreciated in this paradigm (Folk 278).

This home environment may also be divided into gender roles briefly with the research conducted by Hall, Walker and Acock, “Women spend more time with children, compared with me, in ways consistent with mothering and in feminine household tasks, and men spend more time with children in ways consistent with father and in masculine household tasks” (690).  In this gendered differentiation there exists a key difference for the low paid mother in their relationship with the children.  The mother’s dual role may now be seen in their tasks in the household paired with their employment and their role of the mother and providing nurturing to her child(ren).  The low paid mother must further conquer each of these respectfully.

In the research conducted by Zaslow and Emig they review all population groups in reference to the role of the low paid mother.  The key questions which the authors suggest in their research are, “Is maternal employment harmful to children?  Do the implications that maternal employment appears to have for children actually reflect differences between families that predispose some mothers to work?  Are child outcomes affected by the mother’s job conditions?  Do outcomes differ depending on the age of the child when the mother goes to work?” (111).  The researchers suggest that the sole variable that has the effect on home environments does not hinge upon the mother’s education or psychological status but rather that the home environment is affected more detrimentally or otherwise by the job held and thus the improvement of conditions at home are correlated with improvement with working conditions and vice versa, “However, conditions such as low wages, poor working conditions, and perhaps work that begins during the child’s first year of life can undermine the generally positive effects of maternal employment on children in low income families” (Zaslow and Emig 111).

Zaslow and Emig further expound upon the role of the low paid mother in regards to the family unit by stating that employed mothers in some instances and variables have children who are reportedly equipped with better intellect, as well as social and emotional outcomes.  In Zaslow and Emig research they studied three different groups of low paid mothers with children ages 10 to 12 years old.  The children were also students at inner city schools.  The groups had no difference between the education of the mother, of family size.  The mothers were either employed part time or full time, as well as one group having nonemployed mothers.  The nonemployed mothers received Aid to Families with Dependent Children and were self defined as desiring to stay at home.  The children of mothers who were employed either part time or full time had higher self esteem and ‘perceived that their families were more cohesive and organized.  Daughters of mothers employed full time had higher grad point averages than other children, and they descried their families as placing a higher priority on independence and achievement” (Zaslow and Emig 112).  Thus, the research conducted concluded that children even with low paid mothers below the poverty line benefited from the fact that their mothers worked due to the structure it provided their family (this evidence does not reflect any economic issues however).  Thus, the children were also holders of higher cognitive abilities (Zaslow and Emig 113).  Zaslow and Emig state that the employment of low paid mothers however is not equable.

Studies conducted compare children of low-income mothers reported that the full time low paid mother with a decent job had optimal child rearing outcomes than did the low paid mother with a part time job and a less stimulating working environment, “When mothers reported greater job demands, their preadolescent and adolescent children fulfilled a higher proportion of homework assignments.  When the mothers’ skills were more fully utilized in their jobs, their children had higher math achievement scores” (Zaslow and Emig 113).  In contrast, the jobs which entailed greater diversity, stimulation and self direction which enable mothers to increase their reasoning ability with their children in the area of discipline and further expect them to internalize adult norms (Zaslow and Emig 113), as the authors further state, “Over the past two decades, increasingly sophisticated study designs have yielded greater certainty that maternal employment contributes to improved child outcomes in low-income families, independent of the influence of preexisting characteristics of the mother.  Evidently ,however, those generally positive effects of maternal employment on children can be jeopardized by very low wages and poor working conditions” (Zaslow and Emig 113).

Women in the Workforce

The inequality of women in the workforce is staggering when comparing the population between women and men (women make up the majority gender in the US).  The question then becomes, how is inequality still a present issue?

Through the EEO there have been changes made to the workforce.  Women are more and more often holding managerial positions and even in the government women in office is becoming a more common occurrence than it was ten years ago, the problem is, there is still a vast difference between women and men in the workforce; this difference is shown through pay rate, health benefits, problems with advancement and maternity leave, as well as positions for which offices will hire women, as Smith (2002) states,

Women’s earnings are, on average, 71% of men’s earnings. While this gender difference has decreased somewhat since 1970, when women’s earnings were 59.4% of men’s, much of this decrease is due not to greater gender equity, but a real decline in men’s earnings. If men’s annual earnings had remained in real terms at their 1979 levels, women’s earnings would have been only 63% of men’s in 1995.


The problem is, why are women still on unequal grounds in the work force?  Even in this modern society, the idea of opportunity hoarding is relevant; the problem however can be fixed if companies began to open their doors to quality and not gender when deciding who gets the job vacancy.

Due to inequality running the work environment, opportunity hoarding is an issue; it should not be an issue where the action is women stop applying for jobs, instead the EEO should focus their attention on pushing (as they have been doing) for an equal playing field in the work force.  The problems raised by discrimination return back to women exercising their right to work in whatever capacity they feel capable of, and the EEO remaining obstinate in their pursuit of parity.

In the perceptions that women exude in society, that of Other, nonentity and other discriminatory names, there must be a stop to.  Women should not be bombarded with commercials about how they need to change in order to look better, younger, prettier; for this in turn leads to a societal conception of women having to look a certain way.  In the job market, the staple of women’s identities is concerned and defined through a set of standards laid forth by advertisements.  It is in the continual press of women seen in commercials as the housecleaner and men seen as coming home from work; women in baby diaper ads, women with mops, women seen doing the dishes while those same commercials define the men’s roles as outside, mowing the lawn, playing sports, being construction workers, being perceived as CEOS and doctors.  Commercials only propagate inequality in the work force.  If women are seen as secondary, as limited in job range in these commercials then society will also.  Thus, inequality is ensured through advertisement.

To change this, women need to be depicted in other roles outside their pre-determined range of femininity.  Public policy is dictated through constant exposure to an idea; if women are seen in secondary roles then what is expected of them in any capacity will remain secondary in nature.  The change that needs to take place is a major overhaul in advertisement standards and the inclusion of equality of gender roles in even the mundane commercials such as who takes the kids to school, which puts on the band-aid.  If both women and men are perceived as sharing these roles on commercials, then that idea will spread to the work environment.

Society reiterates women’s roles through advertisements, and it is a cycle that seems impossible to break.  If women themselves allow for the conclusion of them as secondary by maintaining the same gender roles then women in the workforce stand little chance of unfettering themselves from discrimination. Society needs to drastically make room for equality in all realms of life, not just categorize individuals or groups into certain sections; but let quality in job placement be the determining factor in who gets hired.  Women are qualified and its time that society acknowledges it, so that equality can be achieved.

Description of the Method

The method used in this research was a strict compare and contrast method in which literature pertaining to different issues of the low paid mother was exhibited together and the finer points debated.  These points included the benefits of a working mother in a family as well as the detriment or enhancement of such employment (also depending on the type of employment) on the child’s wellbeing both in a cognitive sense and a health and clean home environment.


“The percentage of mothers who work has increased substantially over the past 30 years.  A recent study (Klerman and Leibowitz 1990) showed that 75% of all mothers engage in marketplace work by the time their children are 2 years old” (Baum 139).  This presents the problem (as discussed prior) of the cost of child care such as health insurance, and babysitters to the overall income of the low paid mother.  The result is that the welfare reform has increased work requirements of welfare recipients but has subsequently disregarded the work to welfare program does not include such issues of cost to the amount of program funds the working mother is omitted from having due to her working status despite being below the poverty line.  The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) which was legislated in 1996 gave undeniable power to the state to create their own welfare programs  in regards to work requirements.  The PRWORA regulated a lifetime limit on the number of months (not years) a low paid mother may receive welfare benefits, “PRWORA has set a maximum lifetime limit on the receipt of welfare assistance at 60 months, but is has also given each state the flexibility to reduce this limit.  PRWORA also requires welfare recipients to work or engage in work-related activities within two years of receiving welfare or else lose their welfare benefits.  Thus, many low-income mothers who would have remained on welfare absent welfare reform will have to work and hence to incur work-related child care costs” (Baum 139).  This relates to the problems existent in the state of the low paid mother; that of incurring costs outside of the job that inhibit the family from achieving a higher economic status.


The government has facilitated the low paid mother in a return to work program in order to raise the detriment to the economy welfare recipients have caused.  The government thus offers child care subsidies such as $21 billion which is dedicated to the use of child care over a period of seven years, but then the program has staunched funds and therefore makes the cost of child care the sole responsibility of the mother after such a period has elapsed.  This concept of child care provision envisioned by the government through such programs as PRWORA and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families suggests, as stated by Baum,

Because infants require continuous care, mothers’ marketplace work increases the number of hours for which nonmaternal child care is needed.  If child care costs must be paid for by maternal time spent in marketplace work, then they reduce the net benefit of the net wage rate.  Standard labor models predict that the probability of working increases with wages.  It follows that higher child care costs reduce the net wage rate and decrease the probability that a mother will work because the mother must pay the price of child care for each hour worked in the labor market.  Low-income mothers may face child care costs that are higher relative to their marketplace earnings than may other mothers.  Thus, low-income mothers may be less likely to engage in marketplace work (Baum 142).


This proves that the cost of child care has a negative response from low paid mothers in the initiative to maintain a job or to get off of welfare.

In contrast between the welfare mother (the nonemployed) and the working mother (of which this paper is themed after) the working mother faces a larger budget deficit than the welfare mother because the low paid mother often times is not granted Medicaid and has other work related expenses such as gas, a car, insurance, child care, etc.  The low paid working mother has less time to look for a side job or to gain aid from outside sources such as found in the community and charities, “Thus, mothers generally found it more difficult to make ends meet when they worked than when they collected welfare” (Edin and Lein 254).


In conclusion it may be stated that the low paid working mother does not have (according to the presented research) a detrimental prescience towards lower cognition in their children.  In fact the aspect of a dependable job heightens structure within the dynamic of the home.  It must also be pointed out however that low paid mothers also have to face less support from the government because a wage earning mother is not applicable for assistance like a welfare mother.  It seems that the working mother, in her role as mother and employee has a lot to maintain and little aid in maintenance.

Thus, the dual role of the low paid mother has certain attributes that may be considered as damaging while other attributes may be considered as positive such as the influence of a job to the family unit.  Working mothers, though below the poverty line have elicited a response that they would rather be working than be on welfare because of the negative social stigma it provides (Kimmel 273).  Thus, the low paid mother seems to be without options in her hardship.  The low paid mother must maintain a safe environment for their child(ren) while also providing adequate cognitive stimulation, and this becomes increasingly difficult without governmental aid in the area of child care provision, but, regardless of this, according to the literature presented in this paper, it seems that the low paid mother has been adequately involved in their child(ren’s) cognitive development while simultaneously maintaining their part of full time employment (Atkinson 385).  In conclusion, the dual role of the low paid working mother is one in which family takes precedence but where a job enables the fine line structure of the home environment which leads to a salubrious family dynamic.

History of Poverty as Pertaining to Women and Children or The Invisible Poor

There have been many sociologists who have written about the concept of poverty in the United States. Though their views often differ as to the causes, and solutions, the underlying commonality between all of those who have written about this issue remains that the current state of the American public is poorer than it has been in decades. The growing problem is affecting the country in many ways. The decrease in overall health of the country, caused by the masses of Americans unable to attain proper health care is only serving to limit the United States in the realms of education, and business success.

Margaret Andersen, Eugene Lewit, and James Fallows address the issue in differing ways – however with much the same message. There is a problem with poverty in the United States. The concepts of the “working poor” the “disenfranchised” as well as the general “impoverished” peoples of the United States are growing. The ways in which different writers address, define, and respond to issues such as poverty, can allow for a reader to find their own understanding of the issue – as well as its possible cure.

According to Andersen, the main problem is rooted in the residual effects of the pre-Civil Rights era. The accumulation of wealth over time, through inheritance and long term investment is lost on the groups which have been discriminated against since the dawn of the Untied States. Andersen states that “racial exclusion in lending, housing segregation, and historical patterns of discrimination have created significant differences in the contemporary class standing of blacks and whites”. (Andersen 184) This racial disparity was not limited to black and poor whites; it also included Hispanics and Asian-Americans. (185)

The problem that Andersen addresses is further exacerbated by the decline in “real wages over the period from the 1970s to the late 1990s”. (185) The fall in the value of the American dollar, coupled with the increased inflation meant that a worker making the median wage in 1989 made $13.22 an hour; however by 1997 that same level wage was only worth $12.63. (185) The lower 80% of wage earners suffered more with a loss of 6.7% of their total wage power.

Eugene Lewit addresses the issue of poverty by writing about the number of children living in poverty. Lewit begins his appeal against the growing problem by noting that in 1991 there were 13.7 million children living in poverty in the Untied States – a number that included an increase of nearly one million from the previous year. (Lewit 176) Lewit also noted that the total number of Americans living in poverty in 1991 was over 35 million people – more than 10% of the total population.

The next issue that Lewit addresses is the number of problems faced by the impoverished children in comparison to their affluent counterparts. According to Lewit, “poor children face increased risk of death, infectious and chronic illness, and injury from accidents and violence”. (176) These children also tend to live in conditions which are filled with violence, deteriorating housing, and disrupted living conditions – which increases the likelihood of depression, low self-confidence, and conflict with peers and authority figures. (176)

James Fallows approaches the issue of the American poor in a more personal way. In his article “The Invisible Poor”, Fallows describes his discomfort in witnessing the low wage earning cleaning lady who cleaned his office nightly. His work in a software company, and the long commute he faced after each day, led to him staying late in the office to avoid traffic.

After the nights repeated several times, Fallows found himself leaving just as he would hear the Russian cleaning woman a few doors away from his own. This caused him to realize his discomfort and take a more in depth look into the increasing problem of the working poor.

There are no clear answers to the problems that face the women and children who live in poverty in the United States. This mainly stems from the lack of consensus on the causes of this problem. However, this debate of the cause only exacerbates the issue by not offering a viable solution to the perpetuation to the problem. The fact remains that the numbers of women and children in America who are impoverished is increasing. The effects of that poverty are getting worse, and it is harming the country as a whole.

Personal Research Journal

Through this research I found that working mothers have a much more difficult time than welfare mothers due to the lack of aid and the cost of amenities involved with holding a job.  I also found the research surprising with the focus of structure that a full time working mother supplies to her family through child rearing, cognitive abilities, etc., since my predetermined viewpoint encompassed the opinion of working mothers raising delinquents simply because they were not home to instruct discipline or supply proper organized family values.  I believed that if families had little money (the low paid mother) then they would be worse off, that economic detriment was a sign of less intellect.  I found that in the research there should be a focus more on maintaining a safeguard for child care programs to initiate more mothers maintaining their jobs and not having to worry or pay for child care because they are working.  The belief I hold now incorporates the expansion of the Federal Unemployement Insurance program to be all inclusion even for part time workers since low paid mothers may often times be working two part time jobs and thus do not qualify for insurance (Edin and Lein 264).

Methodological Commentary (What Worked, What Did not Work, Why/ Improvements on Research)

The underlying concept of the paper revolved around solutions as well as analysis of the low paid working mother.  For instance in order for the low paid working mother to rise above the poverty line, education seems to be a tool that has been underrated in the research; the research reflected how better off the educated low paid mother was in maintaining their job as opposed to the less educated mother (Rind (235).  Different governmental programs were cited as being beneficial to the working mother, however what was not approached was that even with education the mother was still maintaining her job as a low paid employee, and thus, education did not seem like a significant variable.  The improvement therein would be to conduct a research analyzing the difference that education plays between working mothers, nonworking mothers, and mothers on welfare and to compare this with a closed variable of mothers above the poverty line who are single and have an education.
























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