Reprinted from Council on Contemporary Families Press Release 10/31/2022

Why does family structure—aka marriage–remain such an enduring explanation for Black-White inequality in the US? That’s the central question in a new article, “Racism, Family Structure, and Black Families,” made available this week as an open-access preprint shared at SocArxiv. The article has been accepted for the forthcoming Council on Contemporary Families anthology, Families as They Really Are published by Norton Books.  

Lead author, University of Tennessee sociologist Deadric Williams, has a detailed answer you can read in the new chapter. But he also has an answer to the central question in brief: “The belief that marriage is an inequality reducing mechanism serves as a racial ideology maintaining the status quo.”

The new article brings the receipts. In particular, Williams’ article, coauthored by Caroline Sanner (Virginia Tech), Todd Jensen (UNC-Chapel Hill), and Laura Simon (Mercer University), offers a history of claims that family structure is to blame for inequality, starting with the Moynihan Report of 1965. The authors review evidence for its limitations and set forward an alternative way to understand the many varieties of families that exist.

Dr. Williams explains: “We know that when compared to White Americans, African Americans are less likely to marry and more likely to experience a non-marital birth.” He continues, “Yet prior studies show that family formations do not account for the Black-White inequality gap.” The authors show how the benefits of family structure are not equally distributed between Black and White families when it comes to child outcomes. These patterns parallel results in education, health, and wealth accumulation outcomes, to name a few.

“With scant evidence, family formations remain an enduring explanation for scholars, layperson, and policymakers alike. Entire foundations and grants programs are built around supporting this line of thinking. Acting as if people are already on equal footing, and that ‘these days’ everyone starts with equal chances, can help people make sense of racial inequality as something that is the consequence of personal choices. But repeating that story again and again doesn’t make it so,” notes Virginia Rutter, CCF senior scholar and editor of the new edition of Families as They Really Are.

Dr. Williams and his colleagues note: “Family structure is a racial ideology based on the erroneous notion that (1) race is an essentialist characteristic and (2) individual-level characteristics (e.g., family structure) account for racial inequality. We conclude the chapter by championing Critical Race Theory as a powerful tool for charting a path forward for understanding African American families.”

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REFERENCE: Williams, D. T., Sanner, C., Jensen, T. M., & Simon, L. (2022, October 7). Racism, Family Structure, and Black Families. https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/3u6jn

FOR MORE INFORMATION, CONTACT:

Deadric T. Williams, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, dwill196@utk.edu. Dr. Williams is a keynote speaker at the NCFR annual conference, November 18, 2022, on Bringing Racism out of the Shadows in Family Science.”

To learn more about Families as They Really Are and the forthcoming 3rd edition, contact:

Virginia Rutter, Professor (retired), Department of Sociology, Framingham State University, vrutter@framingham.edu. Dr. Rutter is editor, with Kristi Williams (Ohio State University) and Barbara Risman (University of Illinois at Chicago).

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The Council on Contemporary Families, based at the University of Texas-Austin, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of family researchers and practitioners that seeks to further a national understanding of how America’s families are changing and what is known about the strengths and weaknesses of different family forms and various family interventions. 

The Council helps keep journalists informed of notable work on family-related issues via the CCF Network. To join the CCF Network, or for further media assistance, please contact Stephanie Coontz, Director of Research and Public Education, at coontzs@msn.com, cell 360-556-9223. 

Mother, head in hand. “Untitled” by mohamed_hassan is licensed under “Pixabay License

On a bright day last spring, a group of Latina immigrant mothers gathered in a park in Somerville, Massachusetts, a small, densely populated city north of Boston. They were there to participate in a weekly arts & conversation group for immigrant parents in the city’s public schools, a collaboration between a local non-profit and the city. Snacks and craft materials were strewn across the long table, all of us sipping coffee from styrofoam mugs, when the conversation turned to death. Losing a family member is always painful. But for the women around the table, immigration policy seeps into their decisions, caregiving, and grieving, across international borders. One mother, a vivacious El Salvadoran with a green card, explained how she had been the one to go home when her father had died. Her brother, living without authorization in another state, could not travel without risking permanent displacement from the U.S. “It isn’t fair,” she murmured, as the other women nodded in agreement.

In some places, where restrictive policies and racialized immigration enforcement leaves families in fear, talking about immigration status so openly and in a city-sponsored space would be unthinkable. But in Somerville, which has declared itself to be a sanctuary for immigrants since 1987, women frequently and openly discuss the constraints of immigrant motherhood, including but not limited to undocumented immigration status. Somerville is not alone in its self-proclaimed sanctuary identity. In the wake of the 2016 election, sanctuary cities proliferated across the U.S., drawing the ire of the 45th president, who threatened to withdraw funds and raid immigrant families’ homes if cities did not cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

Despite this public attention, we actually know quite little about how sanctuary ordinances shape the lives of the immigrant families they purport to help. Refusing to enact a 287(g) agreement, which enables cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration agents, is an important step in creating safe living conditions for immigrants and their families. Beyond this, though, what are the consequences of sanctuary policies on immigrant families, especially women who, through their motherhood, are fulfilling gendered family and social roles? And what role do local institutions –especially schools, as legally accessible institutions for all immigrant children and their families, regardless of immigration status – play in enacting sanctuary in meaningful ways?

My research tackles these questions through an ethnography of Latina immigrant mothers’ lives in Somerville (where I also live and raise my children). Since 2018, I have been observing and interviewing immigrant mothers, educators, and community leaders. In a recently published paper, I argue that welcoming school districts, in the context of a sanctuary city, become central sites of belonging and inclusion for Latina immigrant mothers. The city offers programs for immigrant parents across the district, including parent English classes, an advocacy committee, and the arts and conversation group. While the mothers in my study (and it was almost always mothers who participated) use these programs to learn English, advocate, and develop new artistic skills, they also transform these spaces into sites of what I term intersectional recognition. I define intersectional recognition as the process through which individuals and institutions affirm the intersections between multiple marginalized identities. By acknowledging their mutual social positions as Latinas, immigrants, and mothers, the women position themselves and their families as worthy members of a community, even as xenophobic national discourses situate them as outsiders. Yet as women offer each other this recognition, they bear witness to the ways immigration laws shape their individual experiences of motherhood. One morning, for instance, a meeting of the parent advocacy group had come to an end, and most of the women had left to fetch children from school or get to work. A few of us lingered behind, and Carolina, an El Salvadoran mother and leader of the group, leaned across the long table, telling the stragglers that she had something to say. Some of the mothers were paid for their work, hired by the school district as parent leaders, she reminded us. But undocumented mothers could not be hired, and Carolina was unsettled by this inequality. She continued advocating until gift cards to a local grocery store were distributed to mothers who could not be legally hired.

The gift cards were helpful to the undocumented mothers, and Carolina’s organizing was rooted in her intersectional recognition of how immigranthood, motherhood, and being Latina were intertwined in women’s caregiving and relationships with their children’s schools. But the cards were also inadequate in the face of two broader barriers that shape immigrant mothers’ familial roles and responsibilities: restrictive immigration policies at the national level and extraordinarily high costs of housing locally. While sanctuary cities can refuse to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal government still holds jurisdiction on immigration and pathways to citizenship.So, despite Somerville’s welcoming stance, and a school district that strives to support immigrant families, gentrification threatens the community ties that women foster through participating in city and district programs. Eva, a gifted painter who revealed her talents one day at the arts & conversation group to the surprise and delight of the other mothers, relocated to another, less expensive state. Nadia, a skilled seamstress who crafted beautifully designed children’s clothes from donated scraps, was evicted and homeless for months; she could not secure housing in Somerville and left for a nearby city. Even as women felt a sense of belonging, worthiness, and inclusion in the city, immigration policy and rising housing costs remain critical, intertwined obstacles.

And yet, although these obstacles may feel insurmountable, cities and schools should not acquiesce. They can and should enact welcoming programs and ensure resources are accessible to immigrants with and without authorized immigration status. The symbolism of sanctuary is important, but my research points out that it is also how sanctuary is enacted that really matters. To keep spaces of belonging thriving as gentrification threatens the social and cultural fabric of immigrant neighborhoods, sanctuary cities must respond proactively and creatively to the exorbitant costs of housing that are reshaping our cities. Otherwise, the women who gathered at the park, making art and recognizing the intersectional aspects of who they are, as mothers, immigrants, and Latinas, will not be able to stay in the very city that claims to offer sanctuary.

Sarah Bruhn is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Visiting Fellow at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development. Her research broadly revolves around questions of belonging, migration, gender, and education. She is working on a book that examines how immigrant women resist displacement from anti-immigrant policies and gentrification through their motherhood. You can find her on Twitter @sarahbruhn3 or sarahbruhn.com.

Older couple holds hands around a tree. “Untitled” by Sofia_Shultz_Photography is licensed under “Pixabay License

The rate of people entering marital unions is dwindling. Half a century or less ago, almost everyone would marry at some point, even though there was a 50% chance of also being divorced if one did so.

Though the divorce rate has shrunk a little, the rate of those who enter into marriage has shrunk drastically. Those in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s alike will express the unnecessary nature of marriage as well as the risk of divorce as reasoning for their good decision to remain unmarried, but research tells a different story. Though long-term marriage is no longer the norm, almost any study out there will show an the association between marriage, health, and life satisfaction.1,2

My recent study3 looking at long-term success in marriage assessed 141 men and women who have been married for over 20 years. I sought to understand the various aspects of long-term success, so I asked participants what they felt was important to marriage, how to get through difficult times, and their beliefs around marriage and divorce. Couples tend to be quiet about the intimacies of their relationships, so confidentiality was important to allow for honesty.

The average length of time married for participants was 32 years, giving way to the expertise these participants offered. In general, those with higher educational attainment reported their marriages being more important to their sense of life satisfaction. Further, participants felt that long-term marriage was more a product of choice than chance – hard work and commitment to each other were the keys to coming back from all difficult times – most of which were infidelity, times of transition, health, finances, and deaths.

For the 15 individuals who reported being dissatisfied with their marriages, all failed to report the same hard work and commitment on both parts as the satisfied individuals. The dissatisfaction was not reported to be a product of mistakes made, but from a failure to put in the necessary effort. For example, those who experienced infidelity in their relationships fell into two groups: those who reported high satisfaction and those who reported dissatisfaction. Most who experienced this stated that they worked hard together and came back from it with an even better relationship, while those reporting dissatisfaction also reported a failure to work hard work to get back on track. The only experience that seemed to always predict an unsatisfactory relationship was spousal abuse – even if in the past.

Despite the advantages of marriage, the rate of those who will never be married is higher than ever. Studies show that the main cause of the lesser marriage rate is the economic and educational disadvantages of men today.4,5 Despite this fact, educational costs are at an all-time high, as are costs of living.6 Having children – a prime reason for marriage in the past – has become more out of reach for couples who cannot afford the basics. And for those who do have children, having a traditional family still seems an impossibility. More and more children are not growing up in two-parent homes and thus not witnessing healthy, committed relationships, and thus less likely to have those relationships themselves, as half of the study’s participants reported that watching their parents navigate a marriage helped them to be successful in their own marriages.

Long-term marriages preserve families, mental health of their members, and the larger economy. So, what can be done? We can consider education a right rather than a privilege by funding higher education, having more incentives for those who get degrees in needed fields, and restricting the costs of basic needs such as housing, food, and medical expenses. Despite being one of the most expensive countries in the world, our citizens don’t get the advantages of those in other developed countries. Family planning and incentives for those who have children while married can also further healthy marriages and thus all of their advantages. Let’s consider the research and begin to support our society’s most important sanctions.

Brittany Stahnke Joy is an assistant professor at Limestone University. Her research surrounds marriage, suicide, and OCD, and her clinical expertise lies in Mental Health. She recently published an academic memoir on her experience with obsessive-compulsive disorder, The Doubting Disease: How one person took charge of the mental disorder that plagued her decisions for a decade, finally embraced the unknown, and found the power of choice. In her spare time, Brittany likes to spend time with her family, enjoys painting and wood working, and loves a good book.

Website: drbrittanys.com

Book: The Doubting Disease

References

1. Carr, D., Freedman, V. A., Cornman, J. C., & Schwarz, N. (2014). Happy marriage, happy life? Marital quality and subjective well-being in later life. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76(5), 930–948. https://doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12133

2. Grover, S., & Helliwell, J. F. (2019). How’s life at home? New evidence on marriage and the set point for happiness. Journal of Happiness Studies: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Subjective Well-Being, 20, 373–390. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-017-9941-3

3. Stahnke, B. (2022). To Be or Not to Be: Advice From Long-Term Spouses in a Mixed Methods Study. The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families, 1-7. https://doi.org/10.1177/1066480722112355

4. Chambers, A. L., & Kravitz, A. (2011). Understanding the disproportionately low marriage rate among African Americans: An amalgam of sociological and psychological constraints. Family Relations, 60(5),

648–660. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3729.2011.00673.x

5. Schneider, D., Harknett, K., & Stimpson, M. (2018). What explains the decline in first marriage in the United States? Evidence from the panel study of income dynamics, 1969 to 2013. Journal of Marriage and Family, 80(4), 791–811. https://doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12481

6. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2021). Digest of Education Statistics, 2019.

Dad holding baby and vacuuming in a suit. “Untitled” by Rollstein is licensed under “Pixabay License

Throughout the first two and a half years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the one constant has been change. Universal lockdowns in Spring 2020 became a hodgepodge of work, school, and childcare modalities in late 2020 and early 2021 as society partially reopened. This was followed by the introduction of vaccines and receding case counts in mid-2021. Hope that the pandemic could be ending, however, was dashed in late 2021/early 2022 as new variants like Delta and Omicron led to new restrictions. With so much change, everyone has had to assess (and reassess) decisions about work, schooling, and health, creating immense stress–particularly for parents.

Early in the pandemic, there were widespread fears that decades of progress toward gender equality would be erased. Unemployment rates rose more dramatically for women than men, particularly for mothers. Mothers’ time in housework and childcare also increased, and many stories suggested that the increased burden of having children home from schools and daycares fell primarily on mothers. Evidence also showed that gendered parenting attitudes became more conservative. Yet, at the same time, fathers also spent more time in housework and childcare than prior to the pandemic, and the division of domestic labor within the U.S. became more egalitarian. This provided some hope that as fathers spent more time at home due to lockdowns, they would step up and do more – leading to greater gender equality.

Unfortunately, less is known about what has happened since the early months of the pandemic. Did fathers’ increased participation in domestic labor persist as the pandemic continued, or was this just a short-term blip on the radar? Understanding the long-term consequences of the pandemic is particularly challenging because shifts in employment, remote work, gender attitudes, access to care supports, and schooling all happened simultaneously. In a recent study published in Population Research and Policy Review, we considered how these various factors may have affected parents’ divisions of housework and childcare during the first year of the pandemic. Using novel data from the Survey on U.S. Parents’ Divisions of Labor During COVID-19 (SPDLC), we examined trends in parents’ divisions of domestic labor from March 2020 to November 2020 and what factors led to changes in these divisions of labor.

Results show both good news and bad news for gender equality advocates. On the one hand, we find that fathers remained more likely to share childcare tasks equally in November 2020 than pre-pandemic. We also find that shifts to working from home helped to facilitate fathers’ increased involvement in childcare. Given that remote work continues to be more common now than prior to the pandemic, this may enable fathers to remain more engaged in childcare as the pandemic persists. On the other hand, we find that the percentage of parents who share housework equally has reverted back to pre-pandemic levels. We also find that parents are less likely to share housework and childcare equally when mothers are unemployed or when mothers work from home – two trends that continue to be more common than prior to the pandemic. We also find that shifts toward more traditional gender attitudes also reduces the amount of childcare performed by fathers.

These results suggest that answering the question about whether the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated gender inequality in domestic labor is complicated. The pandemic appears to provide fathers with greater opportunities to be the more highly engaged parents they say they want to be, and has shown that greater access to remote work for fathers may help to facilitate greater gender equality in domestic labor. However, gender inequality in housework seems to be more deeply entrenched than childcare. And, continued employment disruptions among mothers leaves them to shoulder the burden of housework and childcare when they are not working. Although this uneven progress toward gender equality may no longer be as promising as some initially hoped, the unique circumstances of the pandemic have helped provide a blueprint for how further progress can be made. To achieve greater gender equality in domestic labor, we need to increase mothers’ opportunities in the paid labor market, and we simultaneously need to provide structural supports such as regular access to remote work for fathers that will enable them to be more engaged at home.

Daniel L. Carlson is an Associate Professor of Family and Consumer Studies at the University of Utah. He is a sociologist and family demographer studying the gendered division of labor. He serves on the board of directors for the Council on Contemporary Families. Twitter: @DanielCarlson_1

Richard J. Petts is a Professor of Sociology at Ball State University, and serves on the board of directors for the Council on Contemporary Families. You can read more about his research at www.richardpetts.com and can follow him on Twitter @pettsric.

Father helping daughter with schoolwork. “Untitled” by ddimitrova is licensed under “Pixabay License

My dad was the primary cook for my family growing up. Learning from him, I handle most of the cooking in my family. I generally like cooking, although the meal planning, prep, and grocery shopping can get tedious. When my wife tells others that I do all the cooking, she is often told: “you are so lucky” or “he’s a keeper!” Yet, no one has ever said to me: “You’re lucky that your wife schedules all the play dates for your kids”, or “How did you manage to find a wife that is so good at comforting your kids when they are upset?” There is a clear parenting double standard; everyone just assumes that mothers are good, involved parents whereas fathers are praised when they help out with just a few of these tasks.

The parenting double standard is fueled by gender gaps in domestic labor, with mothers spending significantly more time doing childcare, housework, and cognitive labor than fathers. Although fathers are expected to – and say they want to be – more engaged parents compared to fathers in previous generations, these attitudinal changes have not been enough to reduce persisting patterns of gender inequality in domestic labor.

In my new book, Father Involvement and Gender Equality in the United States: Contemporary Norms and Barriers, I seek to understand why this gap between fathers’ attitudes and behaviors exists, and what we can do to get fathers more involved at home and promote greater gender equality. Using data from national surveys, interviews with fathers, and my own fatherhood experiences, I argue that vague expectations of how involved fathers should be coupled with the persistence of traditional gender norms and workplace barriers enable gender disparities in domestic labor to persist.

In contrast to mothers who are expected to be intensely involved parents, fathers are simply expected to be more involved. The lack of clear expectations for father involvement enables fathers to view themselves as highly engaged when they help out with childcare and housework, yet still defer to mothers as being primarily responsible for these tasks. Additionally, even when fathers want to share domestic tasks, gendered ideal worker norms and limited access to flexible work options makes it difficult for fathers to be as involved at home as they would like to be.

To achieve greater gender equality, I argue that we need to embrace a new concept of fatherhood that I call the fully engaged dad concept of fatherhood. The fully engaged dad concept suggests that fathers should be equal parents and partners to mothers, being fully engaged in all aspects of domestic life including childcare, housework, and cognitive labor. By believing that fathers should be as equally involved in domestic tasks as mothers, holding fathers accountable to these expectations, and providing structural opportunities for fathers to meet this cultural standard, we can work to eliminate parenting double standards and achieve greater gender equality.

Richard J. Petts is a Professor of Sociology at Ball State University, and serves on the board of directors for the Council on Contemporary Families. You can read more about his research at www.richardpetts.com and can follow him on Twitter @pettsric.

Reprinted with permission from Temple Press

Cover for What Workers Say

You’re at a party, a school parent gathering, somewhere where you’re meeting new people. What’s the first thing you might say? Or be asked? Isn’t it: “What do you do?”

You’re not alone in this. People’s work, and the labor market more broadly, occupy millions of people in the U.S. and around the globe. But why is “What do you do?” often the first question? Of course it’s partly because most people need the money that work provides—and often need more money than their particular labor market job offers. It’s also because what we “do” is often shorthand to others for “who we are.”

Yet “who we are” does not begin to touch the lack of opportunity in many of today’s labor market jobs, whether in manufacturing, printing, construction, healthcare, clerical work, retail, real estate, architecture, or automotive services. These are occupations and industries that have employed nearly two-thirds of the U.S. workforce since 1980, as workers in these areas since the 1980s until today vividly describe in What Workers Say.  The 1,200-plus people with whom I’ve talked at length since the early 1980s, some of them repeatedly, regardless of what occupation they hold or industry their job is in, have recognized that there’s little to no opportunity for promotion or advancement in their jobs, despite the fact that people, their communities, their families, and their country as a whole need what these workers do. At the same time, too many of them are also not paid a living wage.

In their own words in What Workers Say, the workers in the above-mentioned occupations and industries, regardless of socioeconomic characteristics, typify the types of struggles, discouragement, and on-the-job injuries that continue to affect millions of workers in the U.S. and elsewhere. Just as Studs Terkel’s Working (1972) valuably introduced the populace to what many jobs and occupations were like across the U.S. up to the early 1970s, the workers in What Workers Say describe their jobs and occupations from 1980 to today—a period of rapid and tumultuous labor market change. For example, Tisha** in manufacturing jobs, Joseph and Randy in construction work, and Kevin in printing jobs are among those who vividly illustrate the shift to service occupations from the earlier, higher-paying manufacturing occupations (Ch. 2). In one of the most dramatic examples of this shift, 40-year-old, African American, Hard Working Blessed experienced multiple eye injuries on his manufacturing job, which resulted in demotion and severe wage reduction. He ended up as a Fast Food Manager, with lower pay and a job that did not make use of his extensive work experience in manufacturing. Clerical workers, such as Roselyn, Wendy, Ayesha, Susan and others similarly describe struggling with frequent recessions and layoffs over the period (Ch. 3). Others, including Noel, Tom, and Shanquitta (for a period), describe frequent job disruptions and store closures from the increase in offshoring jobs to countries that pay workers even less than the U.S. does (Ch.5). And many healthcare workers, such as Laquita, Tasha, Martina, and Annie and others (Ch. 4) experience “credential creep,” where higher-level education became a hiring requirement, even though the demands of the job were suited perfectly to these applicants’ current credentials. This, of course, resulted in new forms of inequities in hiring.

In short, the workers tell the real story about today’s jobs so others can know what these jobs are really like. The richness and depth of the workers’ words help readers to understand that the formal definition of “unemployment” is very strict and does not cover many people who have been laid off or who aren’t able to look for work. Their words also illustrate the fact that since the 1980s there often haven’t been enough jobs for all who want labor market work, and that the default social policy response to low pay has been person-oriented: that more education and more skills are what is needed for greater equity in the labor market. In some cases, the coronavirus pandemic has illuminated the low-pay issue, to the benefit of current workers, but not in all cases and not necessarily to the level of a living wage. These workers also vividly describe what they’d really like to be doing, which leads in the final chapter to a solution that I call “compensated civil labor.” 

Drawing on German sociologist, Ulrich Beck’s (2000) idea of civil labor, I add “compensated” to the idea of civil labor. Compensated civil labor expands what we think of as work, how we do work, and particularly, how we do paid work. Compensated civil labor would allow the many people like Teresa (Ch. 7) to work at her rental car company part-time and satisfy her “heart-string” (aka her passion) of part-time food catering to her church, children’s school, and community and also be compensated for doing it. Compensated civil labor could also enable expansion of the notion of “work” well beyond the labor market in ways that can tap into today’s workers’ desire to engage in environmental protection activities, broader family participation, community contribution, and the like. In short, compensated civil labor would mean compensating people for their non-labor-market work, whether by actual money, exchange, or other forms of compensation. Data in the 2000s from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Employment Statistics Survey (CES) and the Current Population Survey (CPS), together with numerous existing civic examples, aim to stimulate civic leaders, philanthropic foundations, educators and others to consider compensated civil labor, which could benefit workers, families, communities, and countries alike.

**All workers’ names are pseudonyms chosen by the worker.

Roberta Rehner Iversen, PhD, MSS, an associate professor at Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2), retired in July 2021 after nearly 25 years on the standing faculty at SP2.Dr. Iversen continues to serve as a faculty associate at the Penn Institute for Urban Research and as affiliated faculty at The Center for Research in Feminist, Queer, and Transgender Studies. Her new book, What Workers Say: Decades of Struggle and How to Make Real Opportunity Now was published by Temple University Press in July 2022.

Judge’s gavel
Image: “untitled” by user 254116
licensed under “Pixabay License

Millions of children grow up in a household that involves abuse, neglect, or other forms of dysfunction. These experiences have collectively become known as adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. Because a person’s upbringing is foundational for the rest their life, having experienced ACEs can have long-term implications for adulthood. Unfortunately, for those who experience ACEs, adulthood is often marked by instability and dysfunction.

One marker of adversity in adulthood is being arrested or incarcerated. In the United States, the reach of the criminal justice system is vast. With over 2 million persons behind bars on any given day, the United States has the largest incarceration rate in the world. Beyond incarceration, millions of individuals encounter the police each year, and many of these interactions result in an arrest that potentially establishes a formal criminal history which can limit a person’s labor market prospects and civic participation. The criminal justice system is also deeply stratified across racial and socioeconomic lines, with low-income Black, Hispanic, and Native American persons being especially likely to experience an arrest or incarceration in their lifetimes.

Given that millions are impacted by involvement in the criminal justice system each year, it is important to identify early life antecedents that increase the risk of arrest or incarceration. Doing so can be foundational to the development of early prevention and intervention efforts that divert young people away from future arrests or incarceration. Previously, researchers have found that youth who are exposed to ACEs are more likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system. Still, most people age out of crime, and by the time people reach adulthood, the chances of being arrested or incarcerated have typically decreased substantially. Despite this, some adults remain involved with the criminal justice system even as adults. Understanding whether ACEs have an enduring effect that leads people to be at a greater risk for criminal justice system involvement as adults is an important, but understudied topic.

Our study

Our study, published in Academic Pediatrics, examined the relationship between ACEs exposure and criminal justice system contact in adulthood. Using data from of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adulthood Health, we examined the relationship between the number of ACEs a person experienced and their experiences with arrest and incarceration at multiple points of adulthood.

Our Findings

Do those who experienced more ACEs during childhood and adolescents have a greater risk of experiencing arrest and incarceration by the time they are in their 20s, 30s, and 40s?

We found that people who experienced more ACEs early in life, especially accumulating four or more separate types of ACEs, were at a higher risk of having been arrested and incarcerated as an adult (between the ages of 24-42 years old). Additionally, those with more ACEs had greater number of arrests and had served multiple stints of incarceration during their adult years. These findings are consistent with a broader line of research documenting that ACEs are associated with a range of negative social outcomes and serve as a catalyst that harms one’s adult life trajectory.

Implications

Our study offers important insights into how traumatic experiences early in life can have a significant enduring effect on what adult life looks like. Those who experience an accumulation of childhood adversities are at greater risk of experiencing arrest and incarceration by adulthood and spending longer periods of their adult life behind bars than individuals who have a childhood defined by less trauma and adversity. This suggests the need for early and effective detection of ACEs among children across the United States. When ACEs are properly screened for by health care professionals, they open up the possibility of youth receiving appropriate and effective interventions that provide supports needed to disrupt pathways into the criminal justice system and provide opportunities for a brighter future.

Alexander Testa, PhD, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. You can follow them on Twitter @testaalex

Dylan B. Jackson, PhD, Johns Hopkins University. You can follow them on Twitter @Dr_DylanJackson 

Kyle T. Ganson, PhD, MSW. University of Toronto. You can follow them on Twitter @kyletganson 

Jason M. Nagata, MD, MSc. University of California, San Francisco. You can follow them on Twitter @jasonmnagata 

Dad holding a sleeping baby

Parents today are expected to do a lot. They are expected to place children at the center of their lives and organize everything around their children. Good parents are expected to spend lots of time with their children, enroll children in enriching extracurricular activities, closely monitor their children’s schedules, advocate for children’s individual needs, and foster their children’s own active voice. In short, good parents are expected to be intensive parents.

The cultural norm of intensive parenting creates challenges for American families. Notably, meeting the standards of intensive parenting is difficult for parents who work – and most do. There simply isn’t enough time in the day for parents to demonstrate commitment to their employer and live a completely child-centered life. Intensive parenthood norms are also a key source of gender inequality. Although contemporary fathers are expected to be engaged parents, parenting is still seen as secondary to breadwinner expectations. In contrast, intensive motherhood norms are pervasive, creating immense pressure for mothers to live up to these expectations. During the first year of the pandemic, employed mothers essentially worked two full-time jobs – spending over 14 hours per day in combined paid work and childcare. It is no surprise that mothers were disproportionately disadvantaged by the pandemic.

Given the challenges of intensive parenting – especially for mothers – it is important to consider policy solutions that provide parents with more time to focus on their children. One possible solution that Americans widely support is paid parental leave. In a recent study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, we considered whether workers are viewed as better parents when they take longer paid parental leave. We also considered whether paid parental leave may help shift gendered parenting norms such that leave-taking may also increase the likelihood that fathers are perceived as good parents. To answer these questions, we conducted survey experiments involving approximately 3,300 participants who evaluated an employee’s work situation and their parental leave-taking decision after the birth of a child. Participants then rated the degree to which they viewed the employee as a good parent, taking into consideration the worker’s parental leave-taking decision.

We find that both mothers and fathers who take longer paid parental leave are seen as better parents than those who take shorter leave (or no leave at all). Consistent with most public parental leave policies in the U.S. which provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave, ratings on the good parent scale were highest for mothers who took 12 weeks of leave and fathers who took 11 weeks of leave. We also find gender differences. Among those who take very short leaves, the effects of leave-taking on perceptions of workers as good parents were stronger for fathers than for mothers. Additionally, at moderate lengths of leave-taking (i.e., 3-10 weeks), fathers were actually viewed as better parents than mothers.

These results suggest that paid parental leave policies are believed to help parents better balance work and family life and live up to contemporary expectations to be an intensive parent. Paid parental leave may be especially important in changing gendered parenting norms such that fathers are also viewed as good, capable parents. Of course not everyone has the option to take leave, as most U.S. workers lack access to paid parental leave. Implementing a national paid parental leave policy, such as the one originally proposed as part of the Build Back Better plan that would have provided 12 weeks of paid leave, may give more parents the structural support needed to live child-centered lives. A national paid leave policy may also help to change perceptions of fathers so that fathers are viewed as good parents and not just financial providers. Doing so would help to breakdown gendered norms of parenting and promote greater gender equality.  

Richard J. Petts is a Professor of Sociology at Ball State University. You can read more about his research at www.richardpetts.com and can follow him on Twitter @pettsric.

Gayle Kaufman is Nancy and Erwin Maddrey Professor of Sociology and Gender & Sexuality Studies at Davidson College. You can read more about their research at www.gaylekaufman.com and can follow them on Twitter @gakaufman22.

Trenton D. Mize is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Purdue University. You can read more about his research at www.trentonmize.com and can follow him on Twitter @MizeTrenton.

“Hey Eli, can you watch the kids on Friday while I run to a doctor’s appointment?”

adjoining house

 “Sure Maria! By the way, would you mind getting my mail next week while I visit my sister?”

While it’s easy to imagine similar conversations between neighbors occurring all around the country every day, there’s a widespread belief that these conversations have become less common, that neighbors have grown apart, and that the bonds between neighbors have weakened. Yet, in recent research, colleagues and I find that connections amongst neighbors are more stable than many may expect.

Neighborhood social cohesion, which is the extent of mutual trust and support among neighbors, is an important predictor of a wide range of outcomes, including both kids’ and adults’ well-being.1-4 Researchers have hypothesized that neighborhood social cohesion has been declining for decades due to factors like changes in communication technology, leisure activities, and economic organization.5-8 This is commonly referred to as the “community lost” hypothesis.

Yet, research on whether changes in perceived neighborhood social cohesion have actually occurred is lacking, and despite the far-reaching body of research that considers neighborhood social cohesion, gaps in the literature remain. Studies on the topic frequently use data from a single city (often those near large research universities, like Chicago or Boston), leaving a large gap in our knowledge of what is happening throughout the country.9 Furthermore, few studies examine how perceptions of neighborhood social cohesion vary by individual and neighborhood characteristics, and those that do have produced conflicting findings. For example, some studies suggest that less-resourced neighborhoods may be more cohesive, while others suggest that higher-resourced neighborhoods are more cohesive.10-11

In a recent research article, my colleagues and I addressed these gaps in the research by focusing on trends in neighborhood social cohesion across the entire country and whether perceptions of neighborhood social cohesion differ by individual and neighborhood characteristics. We used two different sets of data in our study, data which focuses on families with children, as neighborhood social cohesion is particularly important for families with children. Households with children are also the most common type of household in the US.

The first set of data is the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), which allowed us to look at nationwide trends from 1997 to 2011 in neighborhood social cohesion. The second set of data is the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS), which began following a group of families in the early 2000s though 2017, allowing us to examine whether individuals’ perceptions of neighborhood social cohesion have changed and whether neighborhood characteristics are associated with differences in neighborhood social cohesion. In both data sets, respondents shared how much they agreed with statements related to neighborhood social cohesion, such as “There are people I can count on in this neighborhood” and “This is a close-knit neighborhood.” We examined responses to individual statements and also combined the statements and their responses into a single scale representing overall cohesion.

Findings:

  • Both data sets:
    • Across the different outcome measures, neighborhood social cohesion either remained stable or increased over time.
  • SIPP data:
    • Reported cohesion was greater for respondents who are: homeowners, married, non-Hispanic white, college-educated, middle-aged, higher-income, or living in nonmetro areas.
  • FFCWS data:
    • Cohesion was greater for respondents who are: homeowners, higher income, college-educated, and not living in public housing.
    • Cohesion was greater for non-Hispanic Blacks compared to non-Hispanic Whites for some measures. Cohesion was lower for other non-Hispanic races and identities compared to non-Hispanic Whites for most measures.
    • Cohesion was lower for respondents in neighborhoods with higher percentages of: unemployed residents, housing units that are rented, and households receiving public assistance.

In sum, we used different data sources with different strengths, and found multiple consistent patterns that all point to overall stability in neighborhood social cohesion across time and across individual and neighborhood differences. We found that neighborhood social cohesion has not decreased, and in fact has increased in certain ways. Our findings contradict the popular “community lost” hypothesis, at least for families with children. However, we did find notable disparities in neighborhood social cohesion depending on individual and neighborhood characteristics. We found lower levels of neighborhood social cohesion for respondents who had incomes below the poverty line, lived in disadvantaged neighborhoods, or were racial and ethnic minorities, renters, or unmarried. Since higher neighborhood social cohesion is associated with greater well-being for both adults and children, our findings suggest that less-resourced and/or marginalized families may face a well-being disadvantage linked to lower neighborhood social cohesion. While we do not find evidence that neighborhood social cohesion has decreased in recent years, concerns about certain families experiencing lost community are not unfounded.

References:

  1. Dawson, Christyl T., Wensong Wu, Kristopher P. Fennie, Gladys Ibañez, Miguel Á. Cano, Jeremy W. Pettit, and Mary Jo Trepka. 2019. “Perceived Neighborhood Social Cohesion Moderates the Relationship between Neighborhood Structural Disadvantage and Adolescent Depressive Symptoms.” Health & Place 56:88–98.
  2. Robinette, Jennifer W., Susan T. Charles, Jacqueline A. Mogle, and David M. Almeida. 2013. “Neighborhood Cohesion and Daily Well-Being: Results from a Diary Study.” Social Science & Medicine 96:174–82.
  3. Robinette, Jennifer W., Jason D. Boardman, and Eileen Crimmins. 2018. “Perceived Neighborhood Social Cohesion and Cardiometabolic Risk: A Gene × Environment Study.” Biodemography and Social Biology 65(1):1–15.
  4. Sharifian, Neika, Briana N. Spivey, Afsara B. Zaheed, and Laura B. Zahodne. 2020. “Psychological Distress Links Perceived Neighborhood Characteristics to Longitudinal Trajectories of Cognitive Health in Older Adulthood.” Social Science & Medicine 258:113125. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2020.113125.
  5. Boessen, Adam, John R. Hipp, Emily J. Smith, Carter T. Butts, Nicholas N. Nagle, and Zack Almquist. 2014. “Networks, Space, and Residents’ Perception of Cohesion.” American Journal of Community Psychology 53:447–61.
  6. Dotson, Taylor. 2017. Technically Together: Reconsidering Community in a Networked World. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  7. Wellman, Barry. 1979. “The Community Question: The Intimate Networks of East Yorkers.” American Journal of Sociology 84(5):1201–31.
  8. Wellman, Barry, and Barry Leighton. 1979. “Networks, Neighborhoods, and Communities: Approaches to the Study of the Community Question.” Urban Affairs Quarterly 14(3):363–90.
  9. Schmidt, Nicole M., Eric J. Tchetgen Amy Ehntholt, Joanna Almeida, Quynh C. Nguyen, Beth E. Molnar, Deborah Azrael, and Theresa L. Osypuk. 2014. “Does Neighborhood Collective Efficacy for Families Change over Time? The Boston Neighborhood Survey.” Journal of Community Psychology 42(1):61–79.
  10. Keene, Danya, Michael Bader, and Jennifer Ailshire. 2013. “Length of Residence and Social Integration: The Contingent Effects of Neighborhood Poverty.” Health & Place 21:171–78.
  11. Sampson, Robert J., Jeffrey D. Morenoff, and Felton Earls. 1999. “Beyond Social Capital: Spatial Dynamics of Collective Efficacy for Children.” American Sociological Review 64(5):633–60

Kira England is a PhD candidate studying Sociology & Demography at the Pennsylvania State University. You can follow them on Twitter @kira_england

Acknowledgement:

We acknowledge assistance provided by the Population Research Institute at Penn State University, which is supported by an infrastructure grant by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (P2CHD041025).

Cover of book, Families We Keep

Relationships with parents are immensely central to children’s life experiences. Parents are understood as the de facto caregivers to children and young adults, and the quality of relationships with parents shape children’s entire life trajectories. Norms around parenting emphasize that parents should feed, clothe, and love their children. However, parents can also be sources of strain, rejection, fear, and trauma. What is remarkable is that even the most problematic parent-adult child relationships are expected to be—and often are—maintained. The new book Families We Keep: LGBTQ People and Their Enduring Bonds with Parents, explores why and how the parent-adult child bond remains intact – even when it maybe shouldn’t.

Families We Keep centers the voices of 76 LGBTQ adults and 44 of their parents who volunteered to be interviewed (separately) about their parent-child relationships. On average, LGBTQ people have more strained relationships with parents than cisgender heterosexual adult children due to parents’ homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, and the other gender and sexuality related stigmas.  In fact, many LGBTQ adults’ ties with their parents are so bad that LGBTQ people create “chosen” families to supplement the support and love missing in family of origin ties. Still, even when LGBTQ adults form chosen families, many also keep their ties with parents. This is what Families We Keep calls a culture of Compulsory Kinship: the assumption and social expectation that family of origin relationships—especially ties with parents—are natural, inevitable, and the most central.  Families We Keep adds new insight to why and how this is the case.

LGBTQ adults use three rationales for why they keep ties with parents in line with compulsory kinship. First, LGBTQ adults and their parents draw on what are contemporary ideals of family as spaces of unconditional love and closeness – even when faced with unloving or unclose behavior. Second, LGBTQ people draw on notions of growth – of “it’s getting better” – to explain why they stay in these ties, even when the current state of the relationship is still bad. And third, LGBTQ adults draw of parents as unique (i.e., you only get one mom), and therefore this tie must be kept, even if it hurts. In showing these collective reasonings, Families We Keep highlights how the social forces of compulsory kinship frame parent-adult child relationships as natural, inevitable, and enduring regardless of the quality. Notably, the ways in which compulsory kinship operates is deeply racialized, with historic and ongoing structural racism subjecting individuals to different levels of stigma and discrimination, and increasing importance of family ties.

In answering the question of how do LGBTQ adults keep ties with parents, the second part of the book shows the type of work—specifically “conflict work”–that is used to keep these relationships intact. For LGBTQ adults, this work revolved around managing, minimizing, or coping with parental homophobia or transphobia, including avoiding or minimizing discussion of their LGBTQ identity or educating their parents about their LGBTQ identity, to name just a few strategies. The work to keep these bonds close fell heavily on the shoulders of LGBTQ adults, creating even more stress in an already strained family circumstance.

Overall, Families We Keep is a book about the importance of compulsory kinship in sustaining what is considered family, structuring choices about who we should be in family ties with even if family bonds are harmful or strained. This book is critical in showing the social forces that bond the tie between parents and their adult children, and should be considered in concert with a large and important scholarship on children who are forcibly removed from their parents—in particular in communities of color. In fact, in contrast to the parents of LGBTQ adult children found in this book, many have fought and are currently fighting for their rights to keep their own children including Indigenous peoples who had their children removed from their homes and placed in often deadly residential schools, Black parents’ experiences due to an unjust child welfare system and disproportionate incarceration, and immigrant parents who can be legally separated from their children. While many children are forcibly removed from parents, other children and adults are in vulnerable positions by an unsafe but compulsory parent-child tie. These two trends—one of the State removing children from people of color and one of compulsory kinship keeping parents and adult children together despite abuse—can be viewed together as a broader system that works to control the family lives of adults. As such, Families We Keep ends with a call for wider social supports for all adults, especially those most vulnerable to economic insecurity ultimately with the goal to facilitate the opportunity for all people to choose the relationships and life that is most fulfilling to them.

Rin Reczek (@RinReczek) and Emma Bosley-Smith (@bosley_smith) are coauthors of the book Families We Keep: LGBTQ People and Their Enduring Bonds with Parents and other relevant articles published in Journal of Marriage and Family and Social Problems. Rin Reczek is a Professor of Sociology at Ohio State who has published over 60 articles and book chapters on the topics of marriage, parent-child ties, parenthood, gender, sexuality, and health.

Emma Bosley-Smith is an Assistant Professor at Alma College in the Department of Sociology. She got her PhD from Ohio State University, and is a qualitative researcher focused on sexualities, gender, and class.