Alumni Profile: Rachel Dunifon Studies Impact of Family Economics on Children

Rachel DunifonFor Rachel Dunifon (PhD99), understanding how the family and larger environment impact child development is a passion that began while she was a graduate student in the Human Development and Social Policy program more than 10 years ago. Dunifon traces her path back to a research project with former SESP professor Greg Duncan, an economist by training, as she was learning to bring an economic perspective to her study of problems related to human development.

The project, which utilized data on families spanning more than three generations, examined how the home of one’s youth shapes success in adulthood. Not only does Dunifon credit the experience with helping her find her calling, but she also cites it as an important lesson in how to access complicated data and analyze it to identify “meaningful and believable” results.

Now an associate professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell University, Dunifon is pursuing her own research on child and family policy. Through her work, she is trying to identify common elements among low-income families to help determine why children in these families can face more challenging outcomes than their peers with more financially secure backgrounds.

Throughout her career, Dunifon has been studying the impact of welfare reform and maternal employment on child development. She became interested in the topic as a postdoctoral fellow with the University of Michigan’s Poverty Research and Training Center, where she worked on a project studying mothers who were moving from welfare to work. More recently, she embarked on a three-year project to look at the kinds of jobs available to moms who have left welfare for work. She notes that these lower-wage jobs, such as retail clerks or hospital aides, often require nontraditional, unpredictable hours.

“How do those types of work conditions influence children?” she asks, pointing out that it can be difficult to arrange for child care, maintain family routines and help with homework under these circumstances. Her preliminary findings suggest that children have increased behavior problems when their moms work irregular hours or have long commutes. She has also found evidence that children have greater body weight when their moms work these “nonstandard jobs.” The reason may be that it is difficult to maintain healthy eating and sleeping routines when moms are working evenings and weekends, she notes.

Family living arrangements are another area of interest for Dunifon. She has looked at the impact on children of living with married parents, with single parents and in three-generational households (consisting of a grandparent living with a single parent). Her findings have demonstrated that some children do better when living in a three-generational household rather than with a single parent alone.

Currently, she is exploring the well-being of teens who live with grandparents instead of parents, focusing on the role played by the grandparent. “What kind of relationship quality, parenting skills and styles do these grandparents have?” she asks. To arrive at answers, she is videotaping grandparents and teens together to determine characteristics such as the level of emotional support provided by the grandparent and the degree of maturity demonstrated by the child.

Dunifon applauds the interdisciplinary approach she was exposed to through SESP as being especially useful as she approaches these challenging questions. She was pleased to find this same approach valued at Cornell as well.

She enjoyed the small size of her program at Northwestern, pointing out that she received more individual attention and guidance as a result. “I worked closely with wonderful faculty members,” she said, emphasizing the opportunities she had to participate in research projects like the pivotal one with Duncan. Dunifon, who describes the Human Development and Social Policy program as “rigorous” and “unique,” also appreciates the relationships she developed with her classmates, with whom she is still close more than 10 years later. “It was a really collaborative, supportive environment,” she summed.
By Jennifer Beck