Theses Doctoral

Work, Family and Social Policy in the United States -Implications for Women's Wages and Wellbeing

Pal, Ipshita

Raising children and taking care of family members, while maintaining a job, and without compromising on economic security, career progression or one’s health and wellbeing, is a difficult task anywhere. In the United States, it comes with a set of additional challenges because of a complete absence or limited reach of supporting work-family policies – policies that are designed specifically to help people manage and reconcile their roles as workers and parents or caregivers – such as paid and job-protected parental leave, publicly provided or subsidized child care, rights to request workplace flexibility or part time work and paid leave to attend to ill or disabled family members. Consequently, workers in the US rely heavily on employer generosity, informal family support, and a patchwork of provisions available from various levels of government and with varying degrees of restrictive eligibility criteria. Researchers have repeatedly pointed to the important role of this duality – major changes in women’s work and family roles against a system of unresponsive social policies – in explaining important markers of women’s progress or paradoxes therein, such as a plateauing of labor force participation rates even as they continued to grow in comparable labor markets, existence of a comparatively higher wage penalty for having children compared to other high income countries and declining subjective wellbeing over a period that saw increasing economic empowerment for women as well as a shift in women’s relationship with employment, with more and more of them considering work to be a fundamental aspect of life satisfaction. In my dissertation, I build on these lines of enquiry to study how such substantial changes in work and family lives, juxtaposed against a comparatively stagnant system of supportive work-family policies, translate into mothers’ performance in the US labor market as well as their subjective wellbeing by family and employment status and what, if any, is the effect of small but important state level policy shifts.
The dissertation consists of three related empirical papers. In Paper 1 (co-authored with Prof. Jane Waldfogel), we examine changes in the family wage gap –the difference in hourly wages between women with children and women without children –over 1977-2007. We use data from the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplements and adjust for selection into motherhood, by estimating ordinary least square models and employing augmented inverse probability of treatment weighting, and adjust for employment using Heckman selection correction. We find evidence of a significant decline in the motherhood wage penalty but only for married mothers. Overall however, there is a persistent 5-8% significant penalty to motherhood in both 1977 and 2007.
While Paper 1 sheds light on mothers’ relative economic well-being compared to non-mothers, the results may not provide much information on their overall quality of life, particularly when the policy environment offers few choices for combining work and family. In Paper 2 therefore, I examine patterns in women’s subjective wellbeing by family and employment status. I replicate least squares regression models from key prior studies using new data – the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System annual surveys from 2005 to 2010 and the American Time Use Survey’s Well Being modules, 2012 and 2013 – and additionally estimate inverse probability of treatment weighted models, to adjust for selection. I find evidence of a positive association of being a parent with subjective wellbeing as well as a positive association of being employed with subjective wellbeing. Confirming prior research, I also find no evidence of the combination of these relationships translating into a “double bonus” for wellbeing and instead find a penalty to being an employed parent. In more detailed analysis of specific work and family categories, I further find that women who are working but not raising families and women who are raising families but not working, tend to report higher levels of life satisfaction on average than women who are doing both. These results further point to the challenges of negotiating work and family responsibilities in the present policy environment.
While work-family reconciliation policies overall have not caught up to the changing demands of the family and the workplace in the US, a handful of states (California in 2004, New Jersey in 2009, Rhode Island in 2014 and New York, expected from 2018) have made important strides in that regard by implementing paid family leave insurance programs (PFL) – provisions that ensure benefit payments when parents take leave from work on account of childbirth, thereby making the leave more accessible. These policy changes motivate the focus of paper 3 where I examine the effects of New Jersey’s 2009 policy change on women’s subjective wellbeing. Using data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) annual surveys and random child selection modules from 2005 to 2012, I identify potentially eligible mothers from individual level variation in month-year of child’s birth and state level variation in parental leave policies, and employ a difference in difference research design. Along with overall life evaluation, I also look at multiple self-reported indicators of wellbeing, such as self-rated general health, physical health, stress, depression and emotional wellbeing and whether adequate social and emotional support is available. I find no evidence of a significant effect of the 2009 policy change in New Jersey on women’s subjective wellbeing overall, but strong evidence of improvements in women’s physical health. I further find variation in effects in subgroup analyses, with significant positive effects on the life satisfaction of employed single mothers and women from lower-middle income families, as well as significant improvements in the experience of stress, depression and emotional wellbeing for groups with such relative socio-economic disadvantages.
The dissertation thus explores how the changing nature of work and family lives, juxtaposed against a comparatively stagnant system of supportive work-family policies, affect the quality of women’s lives in the United States, using both standard measures such as wages and newer measures such as subjective wellbeing, and by directly examining how small but important state level policy shifts affect women’s wellbeing. Results highlight the importance of work-family reconciliation in women’s wellbeing in every socio-economic and demographic subgroup, but indicate that the nature of the problem may not be the same everywhere, drawing attention to the need for tailored interventions and policies and cautioning against exclusive reliance on either objective or subjective measures of wellbeing to monitor social progress and evaluate social policies.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Social Work
Thesis Advisors
Waldfogel, Jane
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 5, 2016