Maternal Employment and Childhood Obesity

A general result in the obesity literature, is that higher female labor participation rates lead to higher obesity rates in children. For instance, the 1996 Welfare Reform act (PRWORA) increased work requirements for low-income mothers and thus increased labor participation and likely childhood obesity. One question which has not been resolved yet thorough which mechanisms does the mother’s employment increase childhood obesity.

One of the first attempts to answer this question is by John Cawley and Feng Liu (NBER 2007). They use 2003-2006 data from the American Time Use Survey to analyze how employment affects various household activities. The authors estimate a two-part model (probit for whether or not any time was spent in the activity and OLS estimating how employment affects the amount of time spent in each activity). The authors also use the state unemployment rate as an instrument in the first stage for female labor participation.

The authors find that female employment leads to fewer meals prepared at home. This is seem through a 5 percentage point lower probability of grocery shopping, 13 percentage point lower probability of doing any cooking, 10 percentage point lower probability of eating with the children. Working mothers who engage in these activities on average still spend fewer minutes preforming these tasks.

Often, when mothers spend less time with children, this results in more sedentary activity–primarily watching television. The authors found that working mothers engage in less time playing with the child, less time engaged in child care and child supervision as well.

The authors find some evidence that working women who have a husband or partner in the household reduce time spent with their children to a greater extent than single mothers since the husband spend some time with the child.

This research may lead one to believe that the Welfare-to-Work legislation may have helped reduce reliance on welfare and the number of single mothers who are unemployed, but may have also increased childhood obesity rates throughout the country.