Ariel Kalil is a Professor of Public Policy at the Harris School, University of Chicago. She is a developmental psychologist by training, and her work links developmental psychology with economics, e.g., the effect of parental job loss on child development. I had a conversation with Ariel about her work and thought it would be of great interest to our readers.
Kwang: Congrats on the NY Times feature last week. Not many social scientists make it to the front page. How do you feel about that?
Ariel: It was very exciting! It was fun having friends e-mail to tell me they’d read the article on their train ride that morning. What I was especially happy about was that the reporter got the story right. He was a very curious and thorough guy, and we spent a lot of time on the phone and exchanging e-mails over the past few weeks. He read all of my original papers carefully, and came up with some very good questions for me. And the families that he interviewed had stories to offer that really illuminated some of the quantitative findings from my work.
Kwang: Tell me a little more about your work. What are main themes you’ve researched and what motivates you to pursue these questions?
Ariel: I’m interested in how socio-economic conditions are associated with families’ well-being and children’s development. So, I’m interested in parents’ mental health and their interactions with one another and their children, and I’m interested in children’s behavior and academic performance. In many instances, there is a link between, say, family income or families’ employment experiences and these outcomes. I care, as all economists do, about whether these links are causal. But, in thinking more like a developmental psychologist, I am also interested in “getting inside the black box” to understand why these links exist, and what kinds of individual differences shape how strong these links are for different types of children and families. I’ve always been interested in applying social science to real world problems. The idea that my work might someday shape public policy that could help improve the lives of families and children is very motivating!
Kwang: In the paper featured last week by the NY Times, you show that young people are badly affected when their parents lose their jobs, and that this is true in single parent and dual parent families [paper]. Could you tell us more about these effects and what you think drives the differences between single mothers and dual-parent families? Between male and female parents becoming unemployed?
Ariel: I think there are likely different factors at play for single parent vs. dual-parent households when jobs are lost. First, these families look a lot different from one another in terms of a whole set of demographic characteristics. So, in some sense, it’s a bit difficult to compare the two kinds of families. One of the biggest and most obvious differences is that when a single mother loses a job, the family has typically lost its only breadwinner. These families are likely to already be strained economically, and to have few (if any) people in their set of friends and relatives who can help them out. In many cases, a job loss sets off a cascade of adverse events that can be hard to stop, such as getting evicted or having to move in with others to save housing expenses, and this might disrupt child care arrangements or where kids go to school, and so on. There is just a lot more instability in these families related to the families’ economic circumstances.
In dual-parent families, I think the situation is a little different, and, at least in the short term, I think the impact on well-being and child outcomes has less to do with the economic impact of the job loss than the psychological one; for instance, in the way that parents relate to one another and to their children. For example, most dual-parent families have two earners, and so the family hasn’t lost all of its income at once. And many of these families also have some resources they can draw on, either savings or help from other family members. The immediate economic threat may not be quite as great. Also, in the families from whom I’ve collected data, I’ve found that parents will typically try to cut back on other things before they cut back on spending for their children, so the kids are often spared disruptions in their daily lives. In these families I think the adverse impacts that we see have a lot more to do with stress and anxiety, which we know can be very damaging to family relationships and ultimately to children’s development. And I think a big factor in the current recession is how long it’s taking people to find new jobs. The number of “long-term unemployed” is at an all-time high, and parents are very worried. We may eventually see more of these families exhausting their savings, losing their homes and encountering the same kinds of hardships that single-parent families have been more likely to face.
The different impact when fathers and mothers lose jobs is a really interesting one. In our work, we have consistently found that the negative impact of fathers’ job losses is greater. And this is not simply because fathers’ earnings losses are greater than mothers’ (in fact, in the US, in 40% of dual-earner households women are the primary earners). This is an interesting puzzle that I’d like to try to figure out; unfortunately the data are not readily available on this particular issue!
First, I think that “stereotypical” gender roles are still alive and well in many families and that the idea of being the “breadwinner” is still very important to many men and that is may be a bigger psychological blow to them when they lose their job. Second, working women occupy a variety of roles – we see in time use data that women still do the lion’s share of caring for children and tasks around the house (cooking, cleaning, etc), even when they are employed full-time. It turns out that working mothers cut back on their sleep and leisure time to do all of these things. So it may be that during periods of unemployment these women spend their time at home more effectively than a similarly unemployed man – because they were already occupying those roles anyway. Also, in the families from whom I’ve collected data, there seems to be more strife over figuring out what fathers’ “roles” are going to be during a period of unemployment. Many fathers viewed spending 40 hours per week in an outplacement office or a networking group searching for a new job as a full-time job, whereas many of their working wives thought they could usefully be spending more of that time helping out around the house or with the children. And that created a lot of conflict, which I think is rooted at least in part in “societal” or individual views about how the responsibilities of running a family should be divided between mothers and fathers.
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