Dual Parental Employment Leads To Significant Rise In Childhood Obesity, Economists Find
ATLANTA—Dual-income parents’ work hours lead to sizable increases in their children’s probability of being overweight and obese, according to Georgia State University economists Charles Courtemanche, Rusty Tchernis and Xilin Zhou.
This effect is concentrated among advantaged households, they note in a recently published National Bureau of Economic Research working paper. They found no evidence a working father or working mother contributes differently to the condition.
From 1971 to 2014, childhood obesity in the U.S. rose from five to 17 percent. The economists, faculty in the university’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, developed a model using the Child and Young Adult data on seven-to-17-year-olds from the 1979 cohort of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth for their research.
“The rises in both childhood obesity and women in the workforce during this period have led researchers to ask whether there’s a causal connection,” said Courtemanche.
The researchers examined how a family’s youngest child entering kindergarten influences a mother’s and her spouse’s work hours, and leveraged that variation to estimate the causal effects of these work hours on children’s weight.
The results suggest changing labor force participation patterns explain more than 10 percent of the rise in in childhood obesity.
“Two working parents create a strain on time,” Courtemanche said. “When time gets tight, it changes both the nature of family meals and the question of who’s supervising, two common reasons to think there’s a causal link. If the parents are working longer hours, they could be substituting their after-school hours with their children with after-school care or allowing them to hang around with other kids. Other adults and peers don’t have the same incentives as parents do to look after their long-term health.”
Fathers were no less likely to crack down on children’s diets – or to give them junk food – than mothers were, the research found.
“There’s no different effect for moms or dads. It’s more about the total work hours than which parent provides the food and supervision,” Courtemanche said. “So the practical implication is that if dad picks up the slack when mom is working, or vice versa, you can buffer these impacts.”
They also examined the role education, race, ethnicity and marital status for parents played in the rise of childhood obesity and found the effect concentrated among highly educated, married white couples.
“Obesity is a side effect of technological and societal progress that comes through many channels. It’s a side effect of economic development,” said Courtemanche. “But the pros far outweigh the cons, so the policy question is, ‘Why does economic development have this side effect, and what can you do to blunt its impact?’”
The answer, he said, is more information.
“You don’t say parents must stay home in the kitchen,” Courtemanche said. “You push research to the next level and pinpoint why parents’ work hours influence childhood obesity. Then you take aim at those mechanisms.
“In future research, suppose we nail down the link between obesity and parents working? Then the question turns into ‘why.’ The answer may be policy nudges that make foods healthier and make consumers well-informed. You move to an environment where parents can work the same numbers of hours, but switching to certain foods does not increase obesity. Child supervision is trickier, but you can talk about it.
“You don’t want policies that strongly nudge people to not work if they want to work. But if parents want to cut down on work to be more active with their children, policies that make it easier financially for that to happen may be options.”