Journal of Rural Community Psychology               Volume E8   Number 2   Fall 2005

 

 

Rural Low-Income Women’s Employment and Mental Health

 

 

Eun-Jin Kim

Department of Human Sciences

Tarleton State University

 

Sharon Seiling

Department of Consumer Sciences

Ohio State University

 

Kathryn Stafford

Department of Consumer Sciences

Ohio State University

 

Leslie Richards

Department of Human Development & Family Sciences

Oregon State University

 

 

ABSTRACT

 

The 1996 welfare reform forced poor women to move from welfare to work. The unemployed poor mothers may be experiencing new stress from the need to find a job to avoid disruption of family income. This study uses the data of 224 women from NC223 Rural Families Speak Project. The most important finding of this study is the significant relationship between employment status and mental health of rural low-income women. The severe imbalance between the demand for and supply of labor threatens rural low-income women’s daily survival and their mental health. This study also finds that the importance of basic needs and social support.

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

The 1996 welfare reform forced poor women to move from welfare to work, aiming poor women’s economic independence. The means test for welfare benefits was strengthened and now requires low-income women to have full-time paid work. This change heightened the importance of employment which has not been a big issue to welfare mothers, making the employment status more important than ever for low-income mothers, especially for those in rural areas. Low-income rural women forced to work to survive, but there are not enough jobs available in rural areas. The unemployed poor mothers may be experiencing new stress from the need to find a job to avoid disruption of family income. The magnitude of this stress may be larger to the rural women than their urban counterparts due to the inferior employment opportunities in rural areas. The main purpose of this study is to examine the relationship between unemployment and depression of poor women in rural areas. This paper also investigates the crucial determinants of low-income rural women’s employment status.

 

 

Welfare Reform and Women’s Employment

 

Welfare reform drastically decreased number of mothers receiving the primary public assistance. The mother recipients were decreased from 3 millions to 1.5 millions. The increased employment ratio and decreased unemployment ratio and welfare caseloads show an overall economic improvement since welfare reform (Census Bureau Reports, 2001). Rural women’s employment rate used to be lower than that of urban women due to their high welfare dependency. Welfare reform raised the employment rates of single mothers without significant spatial differences. Nevertheless, there may be differences in the quality of work between rural and urban women. Rural women may more likely to be employed in low paying or part-time jobs (McKernan, et al., 2001).

 

Harris (1996) examined the factors determining women’s labor force participation. It was found that women’s “income packaging strategy” were important factors of women’s employment status. A mother combines income from various sources, such as paid work, welfare, partner, or family. The strategy depends on children, education, and marriage or cohabitation with a partner. Those with higher educational attainment may have a better opportunity to find a decent job. On the other hand, high educational level may also decrease women’s willingness to participate in labor market due to the increased reservation wage. A partner and children also affect women’s labor force participation behavior. A partner may decrease women’s employment rate by providing economic security to the household. A single mother may choose to stay at home or work part-time in order to take care of her children after school, forgoing the additional earnings from full-time work. This trade-off model for women’s labor force participation varies over time according to changes in children’s ages and other situations.

 

 

Theoretical Framework

 

Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB)

 

TPB postulates that three independent determinants affect behavioral intention: attitude toward the behavior, subjective norm, and perceived behavioral control. First, the attitude toward the behavior refers to the degree to which a person has a positive or negative evaluation of the behavior. Second, the subjective norm, which is influenced by normative beliefs, reflects perceived social pressure to perform or not to perform the behavior. Strong expectations of family members or friends may affect one’s behavior. Third, perceived behavioral control refers to the perception of how difficult or easy an action is to perform. Control over resources, such as money, time, and knowledge, may facilitate one’s behavior. Finally, behavioral intention and perceived behavioral control jointly influence an individual’s behavior (Ajzen, 1991).

 

Mental health status tends to affect employment status. Negative attitude toward life events may decrease the willingness to work. Social norm is also important in women’s employment decisions. The “smallness” of rural communities encourages the rural population to comply with the community‘s values (Donnermeyer, 1998). Rural conservatism and high visibility may deter women from seeking market work. Little & Austin (1996) noted that the rural idyll operates in the context of traditional gender relations, emphasizing women’s mothering role. The authors argued that the opportunities to women are built on very strong expectations of motherhood and belonging within a rural community. Perceived behavioral control also affects an individual’s decision. One important resource is a partner in poor women’s employment decisions. A partner may decrease women’s employment rate by providing economic security to the household.

 

Education is another important resource affecting employment status. Generally, higher education provides a better opportunity to find a job. Having access barriers to a work place may also negatively affect employment status. Lack of reliable transportation may deter the rural women from seeking a job outside their communities.

 

Household Production Theory

 

Household production theory assumes that there are only three goods which households consume: market goods, household goods, and leisure time. Households allocate time on market work, household work, and leisure to maximize their satisfaction. This time allocation is determined by the market wage rate, family size, and family composition. Either decreased wage rate at market place or a child’s arrival at a household may decrease women’s market work and increase household work due to the increased household demand and productivity (Bryant, 1990).

 

Research Hypotheses

 

Unemployed women were reported to have poorer mental health status than employed women (Ross et al., 1990; Siefert et al. 2001).

H 1: Rural low-income woman’s employment status affects her mental health.

H 2: The unmet basic needs may also raise the mental health problems.

H 2a: Food insecurity is negatively related with mental health.

H 2b: Experience of homelessness is negatively associated with mental health.      

H 2c: Welfare history is negatively associated with mental health.

H 3: Having a strong social network tends to enhance the physical health status.

H 3a: Personal support network is positively associated with mental health.

H3b: Emotional support is positively associated with mental health.

Life skill regarding household money management may provide relative financial security given the same income condition.

H4: Money management skill is positively associated with mental health.

“Depression score” variable was used to represent respondents’ attitude regarding general life events in this study.  

H 5: Women’s depression is negatively related to employment status.

H 6: Women’s family composition affects employment status due to the social pressure and demands for household work.

H 6a: Presence of infants is negatively related to women’s employment status.

H 6b: Marital status affects rural poor women’s employment status.

H 7: Control over resources may facilitate the rural women’s employment.

H 7a: Women’s education is positively related to employment status.

H 7b: Presence of a partner is associated with women’s employment status.

H7c: Having a driver’s license is positively associated with employment status.

 

 

METHOD

 

This study uses data from NC223 Rural Families Speak Project [Rural low-income families: tracking their well-being and functioning in the context of welfare reform]. Four hundred thirty three poor women were interviewed from 14 states in the U.S. This study uses the data of 224 women after excluding all missing values. The median monthly income was $1,168. The proportion of female-headed households reached to 47% (Table1). Respondents had a high unemployment rate, 56 %, and low full-time employment rate, 50%. Most respondents were employed at service, 55%, and administration support, 21%, areas. Overall, the employment status was marginalized, especially for women workers (Table 2). Three-Stage Least Squares was used to identify the factors affecting rural poor women’s employment status and the association between employment status and depression. The characteristic of each variable is described in Table 3.

 

Table 1 Demographic Characteristics

Characteristic

%

Number

Mean Age

 

29

Median Income ($)

 

1,168

Mean Number of Children

 

2

Marital status

 

 

Married

36.7

83

Single

28.8

65

Cohabit

15.5

35

Divorced

11.5

26

Race

 

 

Non-Hispanic White

71.7

162

Hispanic/Latino

13.7

31

African American

6.6

15

Other

3.0

18

Education

 

 

8th Grade or Less

3.5

8

Some High school

19.9

45

High School Diploma or GED

33.6

76

Technical or Vocational

15.0

34

Some College

25.2

57

College Graduate/Above

2.6

6

Employment

 

 

Employed

44.2

100

 

 

Table 2 Job Characteristics

Characteristics

Women (%)

Partner (%)

Part-time Workers (<35hours)

51

11

Unemployed

56

16

Looking for a Job

37

NA

Job Type

 

 

Service

55

15

Administrative Support

21

0

Laborer / Helper

4

14

Sales

8

6

Production

7

26

Other

5

19

Benefit

 

 

No Self Health Insurance

67

69

No Sick Leave

65

59

No Paid Vacation

58

63

No Overtime

61

28

No Retirement Plan

79

67

 

Table 3 Variables in the Model

Variables

Description

Type

Dependent Variables

 

 

Depression

 

Numerical

Work Hours

Weekly work hours

Numerical

Independent Variables

 

 

Welfare History

Did parents receive welfare?

1 = Yes 0 = No

Experienced Homelessness

Have you experienced homeless?

1 = Yes 0 = No

Money Management Skill

Do you know how to manage bills?

1 = Yes 0 = No

Personal Networking Skill

Do you know how to create personal support system?

1 = Yes 0 = No

Food Security

Food Security Category

Numerical

Emotional Support

Amount of support for parenting

Numerical

Number of Infants

Children younger than 3 years old

Numerical

Unmarried Cohabiter

Married is an omitted variable

1 = Yes 0 = No

Single Mother

Married is an omitted variable

1 = Yes 0 = No

Above High School or GED

Above High School Diploma or GED

1 = Yes 0 = No

Driver’s License

Do you have a driver’s license?

1 = Yes 0 = No

 

 

 

RESULTS

 

Table 4 shows that the hypothesis 1 was supported (p < .05). Woman’s employment status affected mental health. Hypothesis 2a was supported (p < .05). Food insecurity is negatively related with mental health. Hypothesis 2b was supported (p < .05). Experience of homelessness is negatively associated with mental health. Hypothesis 2c was also supported. Welfare history affected respondents’ mental health (p <.05). Hypothesis 3a was supported. A skill to build personal support system affected mental health (p < .05). Hypothesis 3b was also supported. Decline in the social support increased depression (p < .001).

 

Table 4 Three-Stage Least Squares for Women’s Depression

Variables

 

Regression

Coefficients

Standardized

Coefficients

P-Value

Constant

 

30.448

(3.964)

 

.000***

 

Weekly Work Hours

 

 -.0880

(.0428)

-.1360

 

.04*

 

Welfare History

 

4.206

(1.311)

.1818

 

.002*

 

Food Security

 

1.354

(.6231)

.1332

 

.031*

 

Experienced Homelessness

 

4.501

(1.866)

1.866

 

.017*

 

Personal Networking Skill

 

-3.023

(1.526)

-.1148

 

.048*

Money Management Skill

 

-3.732

(2.268)

-.0953

 

.101

Social Support for Parenting

 

-.4339

(.0947)

-.2801

 

.000***

 

Note: Standard errors are in parentheses.

* Denotes statistically significant at p<.05 level

** Denotes statistically significant at p<.01 level

***Denotes statistically significant at p< .001 level

Adjusted R2 = .274 (9.759) F = 13.46***  

 Table 5 shows the determinants of rural poor women’s employment status. Hypothesis 5 was supported. Negative attitude negatively affected employment status (p < .001). Hypothesis 6 was supported. Infants decreased women’s market work (p < .001). Hypothesis 7a was not supported. However, women with abovea high school diploma education worked more hours (p = .495). Hypothesis 7b was supported. Married women worked less than single mothers (p < .001). Hypothesis 7c was supported. A driver’s license increased market work hours (p < .05).

 

Table 5 Three-Stage Least Squares for Women’s Employment Status

 

Independent Variables

 

Regression

Coefficients

Standardized

Coefficients

P-Value

Constant

 

 

26.613

(4.903)

 

 

 

.000***

Depression

 

 

-1.003

(.1839)

 

-.653

 

.000***

Number of Infants

 

 

-5.690

(1.717)

 

-.205

 

.001***

Cohabit

 

 

4.954

(3.270)

 

.100

 

.130

Single mother

 

 

8.026

(2.478)

 

.221

 

.001***

Driver’s License

 

6.065

(2.950)

 

.132

 

.041*

High School or GED

 

 

.1818

(.2.661)

 

.044

.

.495

Note: Standard errors are in parentheses.

* Denotes statistically significant at p<.05 level

** Denotes statistically significant at p<.01 level

***Denotes statistically significant at p< .001 level

Adjusted R2 = .153   F = 9.66***

 

Table 6 shows the significant difference in employment rate and hours by states. The rural low-income women in New Hampshire (14.3%, 7hours) or Kentucky (19%, 3hours) have lower employment rate and work hours than those in Nebraska (80%, 21hours) or Minnesota (73.7%, 25hours). This result may be from the unequal economy or different state regulations. There have been variances in governmental supports by regions since the welfare devolution of Clinton Administration (Pandey & Tenison, 2001).

 

Table 6 Comparison of Employment Status of Rural Low-Income Women by States

States

Employed (%)

 

Cross Tab

P-Value

 

Mean Work Hours (week)

ANOVA

P-Value

Nebraska

80.0

 

 

21

 

Minnesota

73.7

 

.000***

 

25

0.000***

Ohio

63.3

 

 

22

 

Wyoming

63.2

 

 

8

 

Oregon

58.0

 

 

17

 

California

57.5

 

 

17

 

Maryland

57.1

 

 

14

 

New York

50.0

 

 

12

 

Michigan

48.8

 

 

10

 

Indiana

42.9

 

 

14

 

Louisiana

36.7

 

 

10

 

Massachusetts

34.6

 

 

8

 

New Hampshire

14.3

 

 

7

 

Kentucky

12.5

 

 

3

 

Total

42

 

 

14

 

 

 

 

CONCLUSIONS AND DISCUSSION

 

A significant association between rural poor women’s employment status and their depression was found. If a woman was not employed or worked fewer hours, she was more likely to be depressed. This raises a concern of rural poor women’s employment status with respect to their mental health. The next concern is how to improve rural poor women’s employment status for their mental health. Rural poor women who were more depressed, were married, had more infants, and did not have a driver’s license were less likely to be employed or spent fewer hours in a market place.

 

Presence of an infant played an important role in women’s employment status. When a woman has no or fewer infants, she was more likely to be employed or spent more time in a labor market. Childcare issue is important to working mothers, especially in the context of poverty. Most women would not have a job unless benefits at market place exceed costs for working, such as childcare costs. The new rule made the work/ family binds worse for poor women (Albelda, 2001). Rural low-income women are confronted with non-optional employment decisions, leaving childcare problem unsolved. Besides lack of decent childcare facility in rural areas, many women who left from welfare to work are not receiving childcare subsidy. It is also reported that children in childcare center tend to show undesirable outcomes (Albelda, 2001).

 

Fewer work hours for women with little children can also be explained in the context of rural conservatism. Strong social norm regarding mother’s role, especially for those with little children, may affect the women’s employment decisions in rural communities: “I cannot leave my child to someone else than my family members. I rather stay at home. Aren’t mothers supposed to be with the little ones? The welfare system doesn’t take into account this fact!” Single mothers were found to be more employed or working longer hours than their married counterparts. Since single mothers do not have additional income source, they are forced to work in a market place to survive.

 

The most important finding of this study is the significant relationship between employment status and mental health of rural poor women. The severe imbalance between the demand for and supply of labor threatens rural poor women’s daily survival and their mental health. Current welfare reform forces poor women move from welfare to work. Welfare reform also brought the numerous “working poor” people in the United States. It is reported that welfare reform seemingly brought economic growth both for rural and urban areas. However, McKernan et al. (2001) argued that it should be carefully examined not only in employment quantity but also in quality. They argued that rural women may more likely to be employed in part-time jobs or low paying jobs than their urban counterparts. To protect the working poor and those who are not able to work, the current welfare system should be reconsidered. The poor industrial structure in rural areas should also be considered. Lobao (1990) argued that the rural-urban inequality mostly comes from inferior industrial structure and worker power characteristics in rural areas.

 

Historically, the social forces and resources have been unevenly distributed between rural and urban areas and it led to the regional disparities in socioeconomic well-being. The most industries in rural areas are typically small (Research & Policy Brief, 1994), centered to the peripheral employment sector. There are relatively low wages, seasonal, unskilled jobs in rural areas and its association with specialized industries generates rural poverty (Lobao, 1990; Tickamyer & Duncan, 1990; Wiggins & Proctor, 2001). Harris (1996) reported that poor women who left welfare through getting employed showed the highest rate of return to welfare dependency due to the low wages and poor work environment. Without restructuring rural industry, the “working poor”, those with unstable and low-paying jobs hardly get out of their long-term poverty.

 

Educational environment should also be improved in rural areas. Education is not limited to the academic degrees. Having a job skill, such as a driver’s license, was found to be important for women’s employment status. Also, money management and personal networking skills were found to be important for poor women’s mental health. The significant effect of education on poor women’s mental health and employment opportunities calls for the enhanced education environment in rural areas. The findings about the important roles of unmet basic needs-food and housing-and social support calls for the increased physical assistances and social support, such as professional counseling, for rural poor women’s well-being.

 

 

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