Low-income mothers who need support, such as with small cash loans or childcare, are often called on to reciprocate, according to a new Florida State University study.
College of Social Work Associate Professor Melissa Radey and College of Human Sciences Professor Lenore McWey examined the support networks of low-income mothers using secondary data from mothers in Chicago, Boston and San Antonio. They found those with healthy informal support networks, typically family members, also had healthy levels of burden placed on them to assist others. Their findings are published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.
Informal networks can play a critical role in promoting maternal and child well‐being particularly in the midst of poverty. Understanding informal support and the reciprocal burden it may create is especially relevant for low‐income families living with a reduced public safety net in the post-welfare reform era.
“Quantifying informal support is crucial to understanding its role for maternal well-being and child development,” Radey said. “Mothers living in poverty have long relied on family and friends to supplement wages from employment and government assistance programs, but informal support is even more important today as fewer families receive public benefits.”
Researchers noted that welfare distribution spending across government programs has decreased since reforms in 1996. The government no longer entitles mothers to a cash safety net. Instead, benefit receipt is contingent on work. The number of low-income families that do not receive government benefits has increased from 12 percent in 2004 to 20 percent in 2008 and continues to rise.
Radey and McWey used data from the Welfare, Children, Families (WCF) project, a longitudinal study of low-income mothers. Findings indicated that mothers’ perceptions of support and burden tended to change over time, particularly among the most disadvantaged mothers.
“Gaining healthy support and burden was more typical than losing them,” Radey said. “However, moving to unhealthy support and burden was common among those without a healthy balance.”
Researchers said their findings are significant because they may provide an impetus for prioritizing effective peer social support interventions and promoting community building policies while providing need-based, welfare services for low-income mothers and families.
They said future studies should examine how informal support changes over time and influences parental stress and child health outcomes.
The research was supported by the National Institute of Health’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.