A tough balancing act

Low-wage jobs take their toll on families
Avery Bennett, 3, eats vegetable pesto lasagna at an evening child care program in 2010 in Brattleboro, Vt.AP

The holiday season begins anew, chaotic and redundant, moving into full gear for those of us lucky to have jobs and cash to spend. At some point this season, you will hand your money to a cashier or salesperson and then you will head home exhausted.

Most of us really aren't in the habit of thinking much about those workers' home lives. Why should we? We want good deals, low prices and bargains galore. But what we may not realize is that low prices and the jobs that support them are coming at a cost to our future generation.

Today, 1 in 6 U.S. adolescents faces higher risk of obesity, dropping out of school and getting pregnant as teens because their parents are working low-wage jobs. It's not just the low pay that creates problems: Many of these parents work unpredictable and inflexible schedules that conflict with family time and homework supervision. These mothers and fathers get stuck in jobs that lack advancement, stability and benefits such as health insurance, paid sick leave and vacation days.

Kids pay the price when Mom and Dad can barely afford groceries, let alone an afterschool program, or to stay home with a sick child.

Is this the anti-poverty strategy our country is counting on to lead us toward more prosperous times?

"Simply having a job is not enough for parents to ensure a successful future for their kids," said Randy Albelda, an economist at the University of Massachusetts who along with Boston College sociologist Lisa Dodson authored a newly released report called "How Youth Are Put at Risk by Parents' Low Wage Jobs."

As a nation, this is egg on our face, and it's about to drip down our neck as the population of parents who work these type of jobs increases. For the past few years during the recovery, low-wage positions have been where the majority of job growth has been. Even worse, low-wage work is projected to account for two of every three new jobs in the United States in the next decade, according to the report.

That is staggering in its potential to affect the future generation.

By now, most of us realize that today's workplaces are out of sync with the needs of today's workers and families. Most Americans at all income levels say they struggle with work and family conflict. But we are increasingly discovering that when parents aren't able to be there for their kids in the way they want or need to be, the results are ugly.

Albelda's report finds that children in households headed by a low-income worker are being raised with a minimum of parental supervision, lack of routine and often are being forced to assume responsibilities they are not mature enough to manage. The early onrush of adult responsibility often takes a toll on the kids' health, education and development, particularly when they drop out of high school. Albelda says the report is the first to examine the link between parents' low-wage jobs and the risk to their kids, and she argues that teenaged children in low-wage families are effectively subsidizing their parents' employment.

Already, there are 16 million families headed by parents in jobs that pay less than $11.50 an hour, such as cashiers, nurses' aides, janitors, salespeople, food servers, day-care workers and elder-care attendants, according to the report.

For the most part, employers always have treated these workers as cheap and disposable and now scurry to find ways to cut hours to avoid paying soon-to-be-required health insurance benefits. Employers often argue they must stay economically competitive by keeping salaries low and benefits nonexistent. If this is true, it comes at a price to our youth.

Albelda said the long-term affect could become a vicious cycle: These parents are raising children who aren't easily able to develop the skills they need to do better than a low-wage job for themselves as adults.

"These low-wage jobs have a cost," Albelda said. "The cost is to families ... young children and teens, and that becomes a question for society."

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