(This article appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of SSA Magazine.)

Work and Happiness

Despite a slew of troubles, more single mothers say they are happier today

Women reported growing unhappiness from 1985 to 2006, according to “Footloose and Fancy Free? Two Decades of Single Mothers’ Subjective Well-Being,” a recent study published in Social Service Review. They reported increased pessimism about the future, regret over the past, and overall dissatisfaction with their lives.

The paper’s author, Chris Herbst, a researcher at Arizona State University, found one unexpected exception to this trend: single mothers. Although they still registered greater dissatisfaction than both married mothers and single women without children, they started to catch up during the 19 years studied. They were the only subgroup that showed rising levels of satisfaction, a growing sense of what the study calls “subjective well-being.” The effect was most pronounced among low-skilled women, or women with less than a college degree.

Why? Herbst thinks that much of the answer lies in work. Most of the gains that single mothers experienced came after 1996, the year that welfare reform, with its stricter work requirements, became law. Expanded tax credits for low-income workers had by then also taken effect. “Welfare reform led to a real increase in employment,” he says. “And employment in and of itself has been shown to make people happier.”

The news was not all good for single mothers. They experienced no gains, and by some measures a decline, in physical and mental health. They reported worsening physical condition, poorer sleep, increased pressure and an inability to relax. This reflected the larger trends among women.

And yet single mothers closed the “happiness gap” between them and other categories of women. For example, in the pre-reform period, the percentage of single mothers who said they would “do things differently” if they had to live their lives over again declined slightly, from 81 to 80. Meanwhile, the percentage of single childless women expressing regret rose from 69 to 76 percent, and of married mothers from 59 to 61.

Herbst used data from the DDB Worldwide Communications Life Style Survey, started by an advertising agency in 1975 to study consumer preferences. The survey, which continued virtually unchanged for the next three decades, included questions about overall satisfaction as well as physical and mental well being. Focusing on women with low skills allowed Herbst to gauge the effects of changes in welfare policy and tax law.

Herbst says his results surprised him. He expected to find that the stress of combining parental obligations with work at ill-paid jobs would cancel out any increased satisfaction arising from work itself. “I had to do some soul searching about what these jobs might mean for disadvantaged women’s self-confidence and sense of personal control, and not what they would mean to me,” he says.

Herbst cautions, though, that stricter work requirements would not necessarily produce more gains in happiness. He also notes that what’s good for single mothers may not be good for children. Indeed, research suggests that the kind of child care available to low-income single mothers leads to greater cognitive and behavior problems for children.

Chris M. Herbst. 2012. “Footloose and Fancy Free? Two Decades of Single Mothers’ Subjective Well-Being.” Social Service Review 86 (2): 189-222.