Raise parents’ low wages and raise their children’s opportunities

Poverty & Family Economics

Lisa dodson 11.23.09Costs of living have far outpaced the growth of the minimum wage over the last decade especially if those costs of living include children’s lives. The minimum wage sets the economic floor for millions of parents at a level that keeps their families in poverty. Lifting that floor would not only boost the income and wages of those earning minimum wages, it would also boost the wages of other low-wage workers that earn more than the new minimum. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) estimates that a boost to $10.10 an hour will affect 30 million workers.

There is mounting evidence that an increase in the minimum wage will be good for workers as well as the larger economy. But there are others who are critically affected by boosting the minimum wage – above all – the children of low-wage workers. And the numbers are staggering. The EPI estimates that over 75 million children would be affected by increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

Drawing on our research and over 100 studies and sources, we document what is known about the relationship between parents in low-wage jobs and adolescents in our November 2012 report, “How Youth Are Put At Risk by Parents’ Low-Wage Jobs.” Not surprisingly, when parents are struggling, stressed, often working more than one job, have no time off (as is often the case in minimum wage jobs), and still don’t earn enough to cover bills, children are deeply affected. Millions of working parents have work schedules that preclude being home for homework, dinner time talk and bed-time rituals– the face time all families need.

Sometimes parents turn to youngsters to fill in the gap left by low wages. They may ask older children to step into the role of adult when parents can’t be home and can’t afford to buy the array of help higher-income parents rely on to keep families afloat. Who else is there to help out?

Our research found that youth in these families may lift an adult’s load with all the love and loyalty that young people will so often give to their families. But there’s clearly a cost to their health, their education, and for many, their future opportunities.

How would an increase in the minimum wage affect these families? Like higher-wage parents, these parents would have more of a margin to spend time with sick or anxious children, attend school meetings, listen to a teenager’s daily concerns and dreams. They could afford to spend time with their children and still cover the basics like food, fuel, and rent.

Today millions of working parents are toiling in all the low-wage jobs that support middle class lifestyles and keep our economy running. They are the cashiers, nurses’ aides, janitors, salespeople, food servers, and elder care attendants take care or clean up after the rest of us. Right by their side are their children—the young people who are carrying a big part of the cost of every day. Raising the minimum wage would have an effect on the lives of millions of these children and teens whose futures depend on their parents earning a sustainable income.

As we look ahead to the future of the nation we should consider how wage levels – starting with the minimum wage – not only affect individual workers and employers but also how they support — or undermine — the development of our nation’s children.

Lisa Dodson is Research Professor, Sociology Department, Boston College
Randy Albelda is Professor of Economics and Research Associate, Center for Social Policy, University of Massachusetts Boston