Orphaned by Incarceration

A screenshot from a Sesame Street clip about parents in prison.
A screenshot from a Sesame Street clip about parents in prison.

If you happen to be watching Sesame Street, you may notice a new Muppet named Alex. The child’s father is in prison. Many viewers may consider Alex’s incarcerated parent an unusual, heavy topic for the program that has taught generations of kids their ABC’s and 123’s. But children across the country, particularly African-American children, are in Alex’s position.

The Nation consulted sociologists Christopher Wildeman, Sara Wakefield, Kristin Turney, and John Hagan about the effects of parental incarceration on children. They found that children with incarcerated parents had significantly higher rates of aggression, mental-health issues, behavioral problems, and risk of homelessness than peers whose parents had never been to prison. However, although they have identified a key link between parent imprisonment and children’s mental health, researchers like Turney are still figuring out how and why this connection exists. “Is it stigma, attachments, income loss, parents breaking up and relationships not surviving? We don’t know,” Turney reports.

More than a decade ago, Hagan stated that effects on children might be “the least understood and most consequential” results of incarceration. According to Wildeman, 1 in 30 white children and 1 in 4 black children born in 1990 experienced a parent going to prison before turning 14. The surge in incarceration rates disproportionately affects African-American children. Even if their fathers have a college degree, these kids are twice as likely as white children with parents who didn’t finish high school to have a parent in prison. And regardless of whether incarceration rates decline in the next few years, the effects of current imprisonment rates will last for several generations. That means that optimism about any decline in mass incarceration “must therefore be set against the backdrop of the children of the prison boom—a lost generation now coming of age,” according to Wildeman and Wakefield.

Self-Segregation in San Francisco Schools

Photo by WoodleyWonderworks, Flickr.com.
Photo by WoodleyWonderworks, Flickr.com.

School segregation has been the topic of social science research and public debate for decades. Still, the average person may think than in the post-Civil Rights era, when the law explicitly forbids racial discrimination, school segregation is an issue of the past. In fact, sociologists of education point to changes in demographics, living arrangements, and school funding that have lead to unforeseen issues increases in school segregation. One city in particular, San Francisco, is seeing a resurgence; the number of schools considered “racially isolated,” or over-representative of one race, has climbed there in the last few years.

A recent article in the San Francisco Public Press describes new practices that determine where students get placed and how such mechanisms can undermine diversity. Parents can apply for placement across San Francisco’s public schools, meaning that many students don’t go to school in the area they live. This enrollment fluidity may seem helpful for increasing diversity, but the ability to make informed and effective choices within school system application is nuanced and heavily influenced by who you know, what you know, and what matters to you. Parent choices, especially within particular racial or ethnic groups, can exacerbate school segregation.

The article quotes Prudence Carter, a Stanford sociologist who studies inequality and education and was involved in creating the San Francisco school-choice system (implemented in 2010). Carter uses Asian families as a case in point: “there’s a lot of pride in the Chinese community in having created educational enclaves.” For example, a Chinese family is more likely to send their children to a school with a certain reputation; replicated across a community, it can lead to a school with a disproportionate number of Chinese students. Similarly, disproportionate concentration of students from certain income backgrounds can lead to a racially segregated student body.

If parents want to be part of segregation solution, Carter advises, “You have to think grander, and beyond your own self-interest… So long as we live in an individualistic and self-interested country, we’re going to probably continue to have this problem.” In her view, policy makers will have to adapt legislation to account for the sociology of parent choice when trying to increase diversity in education.

Books Behind Bars: College Courses in Prisons

Oregon State University-Oregon State Penitentiary professor Michelle Inderbitzen shares a photo of a book her "inside" students inscribed for her.
Oregon State University-Oregon State Penitentiary professor Michelle Inderbitzen shares a photo of a book her “inside” students inscribed for her.

The American public tends to balk at any prison amenities or “luxuries.” Others, however, challenge the idea that prison is meant to be stark and bleak. Those who look to a rehabilitative view of prison’s role include Dr. Reid Helford, a sociologist from Chicago’s Loyola University who works in areas outside traditional academia, such as prisons. Recently quoted in a Seattle Times article, Helford states that teaching in prison is “the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done.” Personal fulfillment aside, why should society spend public efforts, time, and funds on providing college courses and instructors for prison inmates?

Sociology helps us look past the surface morality of this debate and consider the broader contexts in which our prison system operates. Regardless whether one believes prison should offer punishment, rehabilitation, or a hybrid, society clearly benefits from lower rates of recidivism (criminals returning to crime). But what does education have to with recidivism? Helford was quoted:

Education does more than offer inmates a credential… it teaches them how to be the people we want our fellow citizens to be—thoughtful, critically aware of the world around them, disciplined and able to recognize authority.

Thus, Helford and his colleagues believe a college course (or eve degree) can help an inmate succeed in the outside world. The benefits of inmate education also spread into the communities to which they return after finishing their sentences. The Seattle Times cites a 2013 study that “concluded that prisoners who participated in education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years of release, and also found that every dollar spent on inmate education translated to $4 to $5 saved on re-incarceration.” This study considered GED, college, and vocational inmate-education together, and new studies are already in motion. A sociological understanding of those findings will be key to implementing and perfecting inmate-education programs like the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which works to create nation-wide partnerships between universities and state and federal incarceration centers.

A short film via Temple University’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program:

Marriage or the Baby Carriage

Photo by Rob Tom via Flickr.
There are more married mothers among millenial women with college degrees. Photo by rob tom via Flickr.

Differences in education level lead to dramatically different views on when to become a parent, according to new research. John Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin shows that millennial women with college educations are more likely to wait until they are married before they have children than women without a college degree. In an interview with Sarah Kliff of Vox, Cherlin explains:

“We’re seeing the emergence two very different paths to adulthood. Among young adults without college educations, most of their childbearing is in their twenties and the majority of it is outside of marriage. That includes people who have gotten a two-year associate’s degree. The dividing line is the four-year degree. The vast majority of people with that college degree are having children in marriage. We didn’t see this 20 or 30 years ago. We didn’t see these sharp differences between the college graduates and non-graduates.”

This trend concerns Cherlin, as it could lead to a more unstable family life for the children of unmarried parents with a high school education. He sees a lack of middle-skill jobs as the cause of their financial instability. This leads to their higher rate of breaking up and ultimately reinforces economic inequalities between education groups. Parents who have a college education are less likely to get divorced, since they are the couples who are more likely to have two steady incomes.

When asked if we could turn this worrisome trend around, Cherlin posits:

“It depends on if you think we can turn the middle of the job market around, and if we can find productive employment for high school graduates. If that happens, then I think we have a chance of reversing the instability we’re seeing in family lives. I also think that it might be a good idea to promote a message that one should wait to have children until one is in a stable marriage.”

That said, providing an alternative vision of a future where the high-school and college-educated alike can navigate the new economy could lead to greater family stability for their kids.

 

Maximizing Your Parental Investment: 10 Easy Steps*

Photo by Travis Barfield, Flickr Creative Commons.
Photo by Travis Barfield, Flickr Creative Commons.

Forbes Magazine recently highlighted some shocking numbers. According to the USDA,

A child born in 2012 will cost his parents $241,080 in 2012 dollars, on average [in the first 17 years of life]… And children of higher-earning families drain the bank account more: Families earning more than $105,000 annually can expect to spend $399,780 per child.

That works out to about $14,000 a year on the low end. Now that, as author Laura Shin points out, is a big investment—especially when kids used to be contributors to the household economy, not drains on it. Today, NYU professor Dalton Conley calls on research from colleague Viviana Zelizer who says “kids are emotionally priceless and economically worthless.” And yet, “We think of them as our most important life project.”

In a hard economy in a country with high inequality, parental investment in children is truly important, Conley goes on. “We know… that investments at home in time, energy and from birth and before are what actually develop kids that are successful in terms of this knowledge economy.” And those successful kids will get into better schools, have better jobs, and maybe even be able to support their parents into old age. But how do can parents get the best return on this investment?

That question, Shin writes, is at least partially answered with Conley’s new book Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Science of Raising Children But Were Too Exhausted to Ask. Along with Conley, she goes on to boil down the how-to for investing in your child to ten easy (well, depending on means, time, and commitment) steps. Be sure to click on over for all the good stuff on number, timing, names, parental work decisions, public v. private school, bribes, ADD, and whether to “stay together for the kids.” In the meantime, Shin concludes, “The most important guideline is to make your actions speak louder than you words.” Parenting the Warren Buffett way!

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*Edited to better contextualize the USDA’s numbers and why parents’ investment might have an ROI at all (someone’s got to foot the bill for all those Golden Years we’ve heard so much about… particularly if we blew all our cash on soccer lessons). Another reader points out that it’s worth looking at all the sociology on how to maximize returns by minimizing investment (that is, not having children at all).

 
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A (Private) Room with a View

Many college students are opting for single rooms to avoid dealing with awkward roommates. Photo by Katie Brady via flickr.com
College students opt for single rooms to avoid awkward roommates. Photo by Katie Brady via flickr.com

Rites of passage as a new college student often involve  wandering lost around campus, sampling the mystery meat in the dining hall, and – that first awkward social encounter – meeting your roommate. At least that’s how it used to be. The Atlantic shares a new trend in college life, the single dorm room.

More and more schools are offering single room options, bypassing the awkward roommate relationship navigation that has been one of the hallmarks of college life. One university even converted its double occupancy dorms into “super singles.” Having your own room does ensure privacy, personal space, and avoidance of bad roommates, but students and experts are lamenting the loss of the college roommate.

One student explains potential problems saying:

With a private room, it’s very easy to find yourself cut off from a social life. If you just go back to your room as soon as class is over, you’re never going to meet anyone new or have any experiences beyond those in the classroom.

There is more at stake than an invitation to parties; having a social life includes learning how to interact with people of many cultures and backgrounds. Learning how to navigate the social world is crucial for young adults. Sociologist and social sciences dean at New York University Dalton Conley agrees that the loss of the college roommate could be very detrimental.

“Roommates simply teach us to be tolerant and adapt,” Conley says. “In our increasingly customized, digitized, on-demand world, there are not many experiences that provide this sort of socialization.”

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4.0 in School Violence

Photo by Alberto G. via flickr.com
Photo by Alberto G. via flickr.com

For many students, school violence, including bullying and physical fighting, is a daily concern and a regular experience. But what effects do these experiences or observations of violence within school have on students’ educational achievement?

Sociologist Julia Burdick-Will’s research on this question has uncovered some surprising and seemingly contradictory answers. She found that school violence had a negative effect on standardized test scores but yielded no changes in GPA. Burdick-Will argues that these findings may not be as oppositional as they first seem and suggests,

Violent crime rates affect the amount of material learned by the entire student body, but not the study skills or effort of individual students. GPAs, she points out, not only reflect learning, but also student behavior and standing within the classroom. Test scores are a more objective measure of content knowledge and performance on a given day.

In an age where school funding is increasingly reliant on standardized test scores rather than GPA, Burdick-Will’s findings suggest that unaddressed violence within schools could continue to have “lasting impacts on individual life chances and national levels of inequality.”



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Colleges Suffering College Debt, Too

A sign protesting the imposition of tuition fees at NYC's historic Cooper Union, a 150-year-old free school. Photo by Michael Fleshman via flickr.com.
A sign protesting the imposition of tuition fees at NYC’s historic Cooper Union, a 150-year-old free school. Photo by Michael Fleshman via flickr.com.

UC Berkeley grad students and Scholars Strategy Network members Charlie Eaton and Jacob Habinek are in an ideal spot—geographically, educationally, even generationally—to look at college debt. Young people seeking first degrees, let alone post-secondary education, are increasingly floundering in student debt, and Congress is dragging its heels when it comes to finding ways to mitigate that debt’s effects. But the state of California’s higher education system is also notoriously in the red, and that’s where their research comes in.

“Public research universities,” like those the authors attend, “have passed along their own debt to students by raising tuition and fees by an average of 56 percent from 2002 to 2010,” writes Don Troop in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Bottom Line blog. So, yes, the students face rising loan debt, but it’s at least partially due to the borrowing needs of the colleges getting passed along to the “consumer,” a model not usually associated with public institutions. Troop goes on to cite the authors’ work examining data “from 155 public research universities,” “among which debt-service payments had risen 86 percent from 2002 to 2010.”

The idea that inflation raises the cost of goods and providers then raise the cost of the goods for the end consumer isn’t new. When that commodity is education, however, we see students (even those who never graduate) holding what may soon amount to adjustable rate credit card bills: federal and private education loans. To read the full SSN report, click here.

A Gender Gap and the German Model

And that's just the Ivy League library graffiti. "I Hate School" photo by Quinn Dombrowski via flickr.com.
And that’s just the Ivy League library graffiti. “I Hate School” photo by Quinn Dombrowski via flickr.com.

The “achievement gap” typically refers to the disparities in high school completion between white and non-white students. In the Los Angeles Times, though, Columbia’s Thomas A. DiPrete and Ohio State’s Claudia Buchmann write about another educational achievement gap—the growing gulf between women and men in post-secondary education.

DiPrete and Buchmann’s research shows that women earn 58% of bachelor’s degrees and 62% of postsecondary occupational certificates. Men are less likely to enroll in colleges and universities, and those who do enroll are less likely than their female counterparts to obtain degrees or certificates.

The authors identify a number of reasons for men lagging behind, including a view of educational achievement as “unmasculine,” poorer grades in middle and high school, and prioritizing work in the short-term over education in the long-term.

More broadly, young men seem to have trouble navigating educational institutions. DiPrete and Buchmann write:

[Boys and young men] want better jobs than their fathers have, but their attitudes toward school and work are misaligned with the opportunities and requirements in today’s labor market. Many boys seem to think they will be successful—career-wise and financially—without having any idea about how they’ll achieve that success.

The authors mention the German model—tight linkages between companies and schools that lead to 350 specific occupational certificates—as a system that better aligns hopes, expectations, and realities, concluding:

Clearer pathways from courses to credentials and from credentials to careers would further enhance the rates of success for men as well as women and make for a more competitive America.

The Masculine Mystique (and Imagination)

Sure. Why not? Totally reasonable option there, Walter.
Sure. Why not? Totally reasonable option there, Walter. Easier than asking for help?

Our lives are often defined by the impossibilities we face, and that can lead to some strange decisions. Take, for example, the hit TV show Breaking Bad: a middle aged chemistry teacher with inoperable lung cancer decides it’s easier cook and deal meth than to ask others for help with his treatment. That’s the whole premise, and a new article in The Sunday Times suggests Mr. White’s decision may be the result of a heavy dose of the “masculine mystique.”

First published by W.W. Norton & Co. in 1963, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique argued that the dissatisfaction women felt with their lives wasn’t due to a “modern lifestyle” driving them away from an ideal feminine identity, but rather their inability to even imagine living full, independent lives. Friedan called upon women to recognize this possibility: a life free of gendered expectations.

Today, Stephanie Coontz suggests the media blitz over the “crisis of boys” (lower grades, reduced college graduation rates, and slipping economic prospects for men) stems from a similar problem with gender roles:

In fact, most of the problems men are experiencing today stem from the flip side of the 20th-century feminine mystique—a pervasive masculine mystique that pressures boys and men to conform to a gender stereotype and prevents them from exploring the full range of their individual capabilities.

The masculine mystique promises men success, power and admiration from others if they embrace their supposedly natural competitive drives and reject all forms of dependence. Just as the feminine mystique made women ashamed when they harboured feelings or desires that were supposedly “masculine”, the masculine mystique makes men ashamed to admit to any feelings or desires that are thought to be “feminine”.

Coontz also uses research on men’s shame around femininity and its impact on boys’ ability to imagine excelling in the classroom. Sound familiar?

In a book to be published next month, the sociologists Thomas DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann demonstrate that most of the academic disadvantages of boys in education flow not from a “feminised” learning environment, as is often claimed, but from a masculinised peer culture that encourages disruptive behaviour and disengagement from school. As Debbie Epstein, the British researcher, puts it, “real boys” are not supposed to study. “The work you do here is girls’ work,” one boy told an educational ethnographer. “It’s not real work.”

Gender roles create impossibilities for men and woman. And, while Breaking Bad takes the masculine drive for independence to a fictional extreme, the new lag in boys’ educational and economic achievement can be a new century’s call to get everyone to, in Coontz’s words, “act like a person, not a gender stereotype.”