The need for a Materfamilias: How important was having a working mother during childhood regarding income mobility?

In the article “Materfamilias: The association of mother’s work on children’s absolute income mobility, Southern Sweden (1947-2015)”, Gabriel Brea-Martinez studies the association of having a gainfully working and economically independent mother with upward absolute income mobility. The article focuses on children born between the 1940s-1980s in Southern Sweden, covered by the Scanian Economic Demographic Database (SEDD). The SEDD is among the few data to have longitudinal and annual individual income data for both men and women, as early as 1947.

Read the full article here

Summary and contribution

The article’s findings point out that whether a mother was economically independent and had an income similar to that of the father during her children’s late childhood and adolescence was positively associated with absolute upward mobility (earning a higher lifetime income than their fathers).

In this regard, the article first estimates the income persistence (Rank-Rank associations) between fathers and children, and mothers and children, showing almost no direct association between the mothers’ income and their children’s one, as found in other studies in Sweden and internationally.

However, the lack of direction association in income persistence estimates did not mean mothers’ income was not important to their children. In the second analysis, the author analyses the association of mothers’ income levels and positions to the probability of children having a higher lifetime income than their fathers (absolute income mobility). The results show a substantial association of mothers’ income position to their daughters’ absolute income mobility, but not for sons. Among the primary mechanisms, the study points out that extra resources from mothers helped human capital investment through education and that mothers influenced daughters by a gendered role model.

The article contributes to the understudied topic of maternal influence on social mobility by providing historical data on the economic participation of mothers. Few studies have dealt with the potential influence of maternal roles in income mobility, much less in more historical periods, as back in the 1950s.

The study’s empirical findings are among the first to suggest that while mothers may not directly associate with the incomes of their children, mothers who serve as active role models by participating in the labor market could help promote social mobility and narrow gender disparities. Moreover, the article shows that the potential channels determining the results could vary by evaluating different mechanisms. On the one hand, when the mother served as a double role model (by performing both paid labor and household labor), children’s main exposure was to a working mother. Thus, being exposed to a paid working mother during childhood and adolescence may have helped generate opportunities and furthered the development of the welfare state in Sweden (1950s-1980s). Education was obviously well-established as the main channel for fostering social mobility in this context. Hence, mothers could add more economic resources at home.

On the other hand, and more specifically, the mothers’ paid labor and relative economic independence may have acted as a booster of human capital development. For instance, the father’s income might have mainly provided for the family’s basic needs. In contrast, the mother spending more time with her children would have known where to strategically allocate resources to meet her children’s needs to improve their human capital and, consequently, their adult outcomes (especially for daughters). Thus, the main mechanism was likely to be the existence of an imitation process, as daughters who saw their mothers in active employment and economic roles would have been more likely to evolve economically