Abstract: Psychological Distress Among Low-Income Mothers: The Role of Public and Private Safety Nets (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Psychological Distress Among Low-Income Mothers: The Role of Public and Private Safety Nets

Friday, January 17, 2020
Independence BR G, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Melissa Radey, PhD, Professor, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Lenore McWey, Professor, Florida State University, FL
Ming Cui, Professor, Florida State University, FL
Background: Approximately one-third of US unmarried mothers live in poverty. Living in poverty is associated with poor outcomes. Maternal psychological wellbeing is one mechanism through which poverty transmits ill effects. Longitudinal studies indicate that lower psychological functioning predicts less competent parenting and, ultimately, poorer child outcomes. US mothers may utilize public safety nets, or government programs, or private safety nets, available support from family or friends, to meet basic needs. Most research, however, examines either public or private safety nets cross-sectionally without considering the interplay between the two or instability over time. The study’s purpose was to determine safety net configurations of low-income mothers over time and test linkages between configurations and maternal psychological distress. We examined three research questions: (a) what are the safety net configurations and psychological distress levels of low-income mothers? (b) how do they change over time? and (c) how do safety net configurations affect maternal psychological distress?

Methodology: This study used longitudinal data from the Welfare, Children, Families project, a study of children and their female caregivers (n= 2,402) from low-income families at baseline collection in 1999. Follow-up interviews were conducted 18 months and five years later. Psychological distress was measured from the Brief Symptom Inventory. To measure safety nets, we considered: private safety net only, public safety net only, neither, or both. Mothers with private safety nets reported they had someone to provide emotional, practical, child care, or financial support. Mothers with public safety nets participated in TANF, food stamps, WIC, or SSI. We included relevant time-varying and time-invariant covariates. We used multi-level models of change (i.e., fixed and random effects models) to examine within-mother change (e.g., how does maternal psychological distress change over time?) and between-mother differences in change (e.g., how does distress vary across mothers?). Data were weighted to represent low-income mothers in the US.

Findings: Approximately 7% of low-income mothers scored above the cutoff for clinically-significant psychological distress. High levels of poverty and vulnerability in low-income mothers’ lives often coincided with high levels of instability, particularly economic. Findings provide three central contributions to the literature about low-income mothers’ safety nets and psychological distress: (a) safety net configurations were diverse: less than one-half of mothers utilized public assistance and had available private support at any one point and 9% lacked both public and private safety nets, (b) safety net configurations, socioeconomic covariates, and psychological distress levels changed over time with deterioration more common than improvement, and (c) private safety net availability, not public safety net receipt in isolation, offered protection from psychological distress.

Conclusions and Implications: The high levels of poverty and instability among low-income mothers suggest that they can benefit from both public and private supports. Given the instability of public support for families, welfare benefit practices may be better able to assist families by providing support until income gains are consistent. Further, augmenting public support programs to include attention to maternal well-being and social support may be a means of improving the safety nets and outcomes of vulnerable families.