Obesity contributes to various chronic medical problems, but new research on current and former welfare recipients indicates that obesity also affects women's employment success.
The study by researchers at the University of Michigan and Cornell University will be presented in June in Germany.
"Obesity represents a potential barrier to labor market success as women leave welfare for work because obese females tend to earn less than healthy-weight females," said John Cawley, the lead author and an assistant professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell. Sheldon Danziger, a professor at the U-M Ford School of Public Policy, is the other author.
Overweight white women who were welfare recipients in early 1997 endured adverse labor market outcomes over the subsequent four years relative to their counterparts who weighed less. For white respondents, a 10 percent increase in weight in pounds from the sample mean of 181 pounds was associated with a 12 percent decrease in the probability of current employment, 5.4 percent fewer hours worked per week and 10 percent lower earnings in the previous month.
Weight did not correlate with employment or hours worked by African-American women, but it was associated with increased welfare receipt. A 10 percent increase in weight in pounds from the sample mean of 185 pounds was associated with spending an extra half of an additional month per year on welfare.
The prevalence of obesity in the United States has risen dramatically, from 15 percent of the population during 1976-1980 to 30.9 percent during 1999-2000, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys. This unprecedented rise makes it imperative to understand the impact of obesity, especially for vulnerable populations such as welfare recipients, the researchers say.
Cawley said previous research indicates an important gender difference: the overall correlation between weight and labor market outcomes is less for men than for women.
"In addition, few men were affected by welfare reform," Danziger said. "It was primarily a program change focused on single mother families."
Data for the study came from the Women's Employment Survey (WES), which was based on interviews with Michigan single mothers who received cash welfare. Five annual survey interviews were conducted beginning in 1997.
Researchers used the body mass index (BMI), which is computed based on a person's height and weight; a respondent whose BMI is at least 18.5, but less than 25 is considered healthy. A BMI reading of at least 25 but less than 30 means the person is overweight. A reading of 30 or higher is obese. Among WES respondents, 49 percent of whites and 56 percent of African-Americans were obese. These rates are substantially higher than those for women in the general population.
Cawley and Danziger offer a potential policy response to their findings. If obesity negatively impacts labor market outcomes, one strategy to promote the transition from welfare to work may be to expand Medicaid to cover treatment for obesity, nutrition counseling and weight loss treatment.
Before joining the Cornell faculty in 2001, Cawley spent two years at U-M's School of Public Health as a Robert Wood Johnson Scholar in Health Policy Research. He will present the paper at the International Conference on Economics and Human Biology in Munich, Germany, on June 3.
Danziger is co-director of the National Poverty Center at U-M. An author of many books, his research focuses on welfare reform and on the effects of economic, demographic and public policy changes on trends in poverty and inequality.