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>  News Releases >   2003 >   January

Mother's work, child obesity: connected?

Posted 01/20/03, by Tamara Steinert

Researcher looks for patterns across socio-economic strata

In most families, having a working mother does not increase the odds that children will be overweight, according to a recent study led by Dartmouth economist Patricia Anderson. A significant exception to this result was in families in the wealthiest quartile of the population, where researchers found a significant link between mother's employment and childhood obesity.

"Nowadays, most mothers and fathers with small children work long hours outside the home. The resulting time-crunch can affect children's health. Working mothers, particularly the highly educated, are more likely to have obese children," Anderson said.

"Perhaps we should be thinking about how to distribute the household load more evenly between men and women..."

-Patricia Anderson

The study, "Maternal Employment and Overweight Children," has been accepted for publication in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Health Economics and is among the first to examine whether the epidemic rise in childhood obesity in recent decades is causally linked to the increasing number of women in the workforce. Anderson collaborated with colleagues at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and Wellesley College on the study, using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.

"We focused on maternal employment because it is a factor that has changed substantially over time, whereas men's employment has remained about the same. We also had good data on women, and they still tend to bear more responsibility for child rearing than do fathers," said Anderson.

The rate of obesity among children from ages 6 to 11 has tripled since the 1960s, according to figures from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, leading some public health officials to call the situation an epidemic.

"There is a lot of health literature out there that reports correlations between obesity and various factors, but we are interested in causal links. So, we use a variety of econometric techniques to control for both observable and unobservable factors," Anderson explained. Among the observable factors she and her collaborators controlled for were socio-economic status, education, mother's weight and marital status, and whether a child was breastfed or not.

Although children from lower- and middle-income groups have the highest overall likelihood of being overweight, Anderson's research showed that a mother's work status does not appear to contribute directly to their obesity problems.

"The higher rates of overweight in poor families or in those with less-educated parents could be a result of many things, like lack of knowledge about proper nutrition, having fewer opportunities to participate in activities, having less access to fresh fruits and vegetables, or other factors that have a greater impact on the child's health than a mother's working status," Anderson explained.

By contrast, working outside the home can be shown to account for anywhere from 12 to 35 percent of the increase of overweight in the country's wealthiest families.

People in lower economic groups probably already face significant time and resource constraints, regardless of whether a mother works, Anderson suggests. "So if a mother moves into the workforce, there is probably just a marginal effect compared to wealthier families." In cases where a mother's employment did impact children's weight, this effect increased as the number of hours she worked per week increased over time.

The study also found that children whose mothers worked while they were infants or toddlers were not necessarily at greater risk for being overweight than children whose mothers waited until the children were older to enter the workplace.

While some commentators advocate returning to traditional household structures to combat social ills like childhood obesity, Anderson takes a more pragmatic view.

"This is the direction that society is moving in, and we need to focus on how to provide better nutrition and exercise for kids within these time and resource constraints," she said. "A mother who works outside the home is an economic necessity for many families. Perhaps we should be thinking about how to distribute the household load more evenly between men and women, because these constraints are having harmful side effects on family health."

The next step for Anderson is looking at the relationship between obesity and schools that make fast food and soda available to students.

"Schools are doing things now that used to be done in households, like making sure there's enough exercise and passing on knowledge about nutrition," said Anderson. At the same time, "a lot of schools are signing contracts with companies which give exclusive 'pouring rights' to a particular vendor, like Coca-Cola," said Anderson. These contracts generate much-needed funds for the schools. However, the presence of "junk food" in schools has caused controversy. "We want to look at the availability of these kinds of foods in schools and determine whether there's a link to obesity."

- Tamara Steinert

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