McCormack Speaks

Mother Knows Best: At the Intersection of Low-wage Work, Public Assistance and Child Care


by Robert Turner, McCormack Graduate School Senior Fellow

“Current policy approaches make it impossible for families to create a stable life.” Mother and daughter

This blunt assessment—and the visionary yet common sense proposals accompanying it— are part of a Ford-Foundation-funded study and partnership of Françoise Carré, research director of the Center for Social Policy (CSP), 9to5 National Association of Working Women, and Lisa Dodson of Brandeis University. The study is titled “Mothers Know Best; At the intersection of low-wage work, public assistance and child care.”

Far too often, their report concludes, federal, state, and local policies smother the efforts of families to lift themselves and their children out of poverty.

The research was conducted in Massachusetts, Colorado, and Georgia. In addition to policy analysis, it included in-depth focus groups and follow-up interviews with one hundred low-income parents, mostly mothers, whose real-life frustrations inform the work. “The whole system sets people up to fail,” said one mother in Georgia. A grandmother added, “It punishes people who are trying to do better.”

Among the report’s recommendations:

  • Consider wages and public assistance jointly to eliminate “cliff effects” that, for instance, wipe out a young mother’s child care subsidy when she gets a modest pay raise.
  • Focus on the children, especially their safety, health, and stability.
  • Promote work that includes a pathway out of poverty, such as education and training for more skilled positions.
  • Recognize and dismantle the barrier of discrimination.
  • Listen to affected women, and include them in policy-making councils.

The study is part of the Integrating Resources to Strengthen Low-income Families project, a partnership of 9to5, the National Association of Working Women; the Institute for Child, Youth and Family Policy at Brandeis University; and the Center for Social Policy (CSP) at the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at UMass Boston.

Dr. Carré’s colleagues in this report were now retired 9to5 Executive Director Linda Meric and Dr. Lisa Dodson, senior scientist and faculty at the Institute for Child, Youth and Family Policy at Brandeis.

Susan Crandall, the CSP director, said the report complements CSP’s “research agenda for the On Solid Ground coalition”, which aims to improve housing stability and economic mobility through a cross-sector, research-based, and family centered approach.

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