Photo by krzys16 via pixabay

This week I interviewed Debra Umberson, author of Death of family members as an overlooked source of racial disadvantage in the United States. She is a professor of Sociology and Director of the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin, and last week we featured her study on this page. The study examined the grief and loss in Black families and linked them to racial differences in US life expectancy. We hear frequent news accounts of Black people dying due to police shootings along with other sources of untimely deaths. The reality of these multiplied deaths affect the Black community as a whole. Looking at movements such as Black Lives Matter and how conflicts surrounding race recently can no longer be swept under the rug, I wanted to learn more about research suggesting that Black Americans die at much higher rates than White Americans due to historical racial inequalities.

Q: Your study discusses the extreme racial disparities in exposure to the death of family members in non-Hispanic Blacks compared to whites. What brought you to investigate this topic?

DU: Several things came together to lead me to this topic. First, several years ago, I conducted in-depth interviews with Black and White respondents to learn more about how early family relationships influence health habits throughout the life course. Although it wasn’t a focus of the project, the interviews with Black respondents were filled with stories of grief and loss, starting when they were children. This was especially striking in that the Black and White respondents were very similar in education and income and the stories of White respondents rarely included stories of family member loss. Around the same time, more and more stories were surfacing in the media about premature and violent deaths of young Black men in the U.S. and their devastated parents were often featured in those reports. I started thinking about the significant Black-White race gap in U.S. life expectancy and realizing how much more pervasive loss must be in Black families.

Q: Although you hypothesized that the death of family members would be more common among Black Americans than among White Americans, did you find anything that surprised you?

DU: The extent of the race gap in loss was striking. I was somewhat surprised by how big the gap was in the risk of losing a child.  Blacks are about two and half times more likely than Whites to lose a child by age 30. Between the ages of 50 and 70, Blacks are 3 times more likely than Whites to lose a child. For most family member deaths, the race gap begins to close in later life as Whites begin to more family members but that’s not the case for death of a child. Whites are much more likely than Blacks to never lose a child in their lifetime.

Q: In the context of current events such as deaths by the police, a rise in the Black Lives Matter movement, and police brutality, what is next on your research agenda?

DU: Our next step is to consider how exposure to family member deaths may contribute to racial disparities in wide-ranging life outcomes including mental health, physical health, and mortality risk. We will also consider how these effects differ for men and women across the life course. Since we know that even one family member death – whether a spouse, a child, or a parent — has significant adverse effects on health and well-being, we expect that more frequent and earlier family member losses contribute to racial disparities in health.

Bereavement rates, health & racial inequality, and criminal victimization mentioned in this research all illustrate a tragic point of view for Black Americans in the United States. With Black Americans in the news constantly this creates a sense of strain, “collective loss, and personal vulnerability” within the Black community.  If Black Americans have family members—whether that be a spouse, a child, or a sibling—dying earlier in their lives, these losses only create a lifelong ripple effect for generations and reoccurring disadvantages. Whatever can help: policies, interventions, or a simple acknowledgment of bereavement and loss in these populations must be taken into effect—and fast.

Tasia Clemons is a Junior sociology major at Framingham State University, a Resident Assistant, and a CCF Public Affairs Intern.


photo credit: Polski via pixabay

One consequence of racial inequalities in the United States is that black Americans die at much higher rates than white Americans. New research by UT Austin’s Debra Umberson and colleagues explores some understudied consequences of this. Umberson’s team finds that black Americans are more likely to lose their parents during childhood than white children. Furthermore, black Americans are more likely to experience the death of multiple close family members by mid-life. Along with the sheer tragedy, in the long run these losses have the potential to damage the health of black Americans. Bereavement following the death of just one family member has shown to have lasting adverse consequences for the health of the individual, with premature deaths having an even larger impact.

Using the National Longitudinal Study of Youth and Health and Retirement Study totaling 42,000 people, the researchers compared non-Hispanic black and non-Hispanic white Americans on their exposure to death of family members and total number of deaths experienced at different ages. The study shows that black Americans were twice as likely as white Americans to experience the death of two or more family members by the age of 30. Black Americans born in the 1980s were three times more likely to lose a mother, more than twice as likely to lose a father, and 20 percent more likely to lose a sibling by age 10. The race gap diminishes slightly at age 70. At that point, whites begin to exceed blacks in experiencing loss. However, black Americans experienced more family member deaths than white Americans overall.

This racial disparity in family member death rates paints a stark picture of black health disadvantages. Death of family members puts strain on other family relationships. This strain often persists throughout a lifetime, thus adding to even more trouble. As Umberson and colleagues emphasize bereavement is a known risk factor for mental and physical health having an even greater impact if it occurs during childhood or early adulthood. The loss-upon-loss quality of this result sets up another reinforcing cycle. Racial inequalities contribute to a high death rate for black Americans. And they add another racial inequality all together; health disadvantages due to the loss of family members.

Next week we will feature an interview with Dr. Umberson about her research.

Megan Peterson is a senior sociology major at Framingham State University and a Council on Contemporary Families Public Affairs and Social Media Intern.

Photo by gadgetgirl via flickr CC.

Photo by gadgetgirl via flickr CC.

Originally published July 19, 2016

Family and work scholar Sarah Damaske, author of For the Family? How Class and Gender Shape Women’s Work, is Assistant Professor of Labor & Employment Relations and Sociology at the Pennsylvania State University. Her research responds to policy puzzles about the relationship between family, work, and inequality. That’s why I wanted to learn her response this week, when conservative (and anti-Trump) columnist George Will wrote the latest piece looking wistfully back at the 50-year old arguments of Daniel Patrick Moynihan – in this case in praise of family structure as the explanation for educational failures.

Will’s piece, linking the work on education from sociologist James Coleman to Moynihan’s contemporaneous claims about the “tangle of family pathologies” in the 1960s, looks like more “neomoynihanism.” What’s that? As a little background, in a summer 2015 review Stephanie Coontz titled this whole return to the past “The Moynihan Family Circus.” Coontz explains, “When it comes to social thinking about families, there is such a thing as ‘American exceptionalism.’ Other Western countries tend to view people’s life trajectories in light of their place in the class structure. But ever since the late-nineteenth century, Americans have typically attributed people’s successes or failures to their family structures and values. This is, of course, a convenient way to reconcile our faith in individual achievement with the reality of racial and economic inequality.”

What did Sarah have to say about the sociological record on all of this?

VR: What do you think of Will’s argument that “social science offers sobering evidence that family structure accounts for poor school performance”?

SD: One of the fundamental pieces of the picture that Will leaves out of this analysis is how we fund our public schools in the United States. This is important because funding structures—not family structures—are key to understanding ways to address and reduce inequality. But we fund schools using local tax dollars, which means that schools in areas where parents make a lot of money are usually quite wealthy, while schools in areas where parents make little are usually quite poor. Thus, how we choose to fund our schools has a profound impact on the quality of education that children have available to them.

That being said, it is incorrect to say that education has no impact on children’s lives—there is simply no evidence to suggest that this is true. Many children gain higher levels of education than their parents had and achieve social mobility. Still, those with parents without college degrees do face different challenges in high school and college and there is less economic intergenerational mobility in the United States than there is in other countries.

VR: So, what are the main challenges facing single parent families in the United States?

SD: My current research with colleagues, Jenifer Bratter of Rice University and Adrianne Frech of the University of Akron, suggests that the biggest problem single-mother households face is finding work that will lift their families out of poverty. We find that single-mother households were at greater risk of poverty in 2010 than they were in 2000, and we can link this risk directly to the fact that even full-time work is now often not enough to keep a family out of poverty. Moreover, as sociologist Philip Cohen has pointed out, married Black families are almost two and a half times more likely to live in poverty than are white families, which leads him to ask, “explain to me again how marriage is the problem here?”

The idea that single parent families are themselves “the problem” seems to me to be a smokescreen that masks the real challenges families face and stigmatizes a particular family form. In my opinion, based on considerable sociological evidence, the main problem facing families is low wages and, as my own research suggests, a lack of affordable childcare to make continued workforce participation possible for women to help them raise their wages and support their families.

Moreover, qualitative interviews done both with white and black women living in poverty (by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas) and with working-class men and women (by Jennifer Silva) find that marriage remains a strong social value. But young people today believe that they can’t marry because they can’t find stable jobs to support themselves, never mind a family. Again, this makes the case that wages (as well as growing job instability) are at the heart of these challenges, and increasing wages and decreasing job uncertainty are likely the best ways to make marriage possible for those who want it and make those who don’t want it more economically secure.

VR: Will argues that liberals only care about social science “when it validates policies congenial to the interests of favored factions.” Want to respond?

SD: In his conclusion, Will scolds liberals for ignoring social science, but he, himself, ignores decades of sociological work that challenges the Moynihan report, just a fraction of which I have sketched above! The Moynihan report is, in fact, one of the most controversial sociological findings of the 20th century, but there is no acknowledgement of that controversy in the column. There is, indeed, research to suggest that there are benefits to being married—this makes some common sense, as people can combine incomes, save on household costs, and pool their time use. But there is also significant cause for concern here, as we also know that trying to stay together can increase domestic violence rates, can be worse for children’s emotional well-being when parents fight a lot, and can be bad for the mental health of the unhappily married. Will appears to want to turn back time, but that is one of the few things that we can all agree upon—there are no time machines, we must move forward. Moreover, we may not truly want to go back, because when we look closely at that time capsule to the 1950s, we see, as Stephanie Coontz explains, many women felt oppressed in their homes, most families of color were left out of the economic largess of that time period, and LGBTQ families had no rights at all.

Policies that would truly benefit single mothers and have been validated by some of the best social science include three that are currently on the hill. The Healthy Families Act would allow workers in companies with at least 15 employees to earn up to seven paid sick days a year. Close to 40 percent of Americans do not have ONE sick day—to care for themselves, for their children, for their family members. Localities that have adopted similar plans have found real benefits for families and employers. The FAMILY Act would provide workers with up to twelve weeks of partial income replacement when they need to take leave to take care of their own serious health problem, a pregnancy and post-partum recovery, a serious health problem of a family member, the birth or adoption of a child, or a serious military medical leave condition. Many single mothers cannot use our current Family and Medical Leave Act, because they cannot afford to take unpaid time off from work. This act would address this. Finally, the Schedules that Work Act would address the problem of unpredictable schedules that face so many Americans today. Slightly over 40 percent of young adult workers do not know their schedule more than one week ahead of time. This causes many challenges for single mother households in particular, as their incomes and their need for childcare vary on a weekly basis, as experts Susan Lambert and Julia Henley have repeatedly demonstrated in their work. In conclusion, there is clear sociological evidence and clear solutions to the problems facing families today. We just need the will to act.

For more information on these topics or to find out how you can support the three policies described above, you can visit:

The National Partnership for Women and Children

The Washington Center for Equitable Growth

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research

sunriseIf you are interested in families, the most recent presidential election brings a trail of troubles. A lot of Americans fear what is in store in the near future and are anxious about the clear division in popular attitudes that now exists in what is supposed to be the United States. Family policy will be deeply impacted as a result of this division. For direction, Kate Gallagher Robbins and Shawn Fremstad offer a light in the darkness in a recent brief—using evidence to clarify uncertainty. Robbins is the Director of Family Policy for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at American Progress, and Fremstad is a senior research associate at the Center for Economic Policy Research, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, and a consultant on policy issues to multiple national nonprofits. They are also CCF Senior Scholars. If you want to hear more, also read this short interview with them on “Now What?”

In their brief, 4 Progressive Policies that Make Families Stronger, Robbins and Fremstad detail key progressive policies that will strengthen working class families.

  1. Increase Minimum Wage

Families fare better when making more money because they have more certainty and fewer financial worries. Marriage rates help to portray that a low minimum wage is hard on families: Explain Robbins and Fremstad: “The greatest declines in marriage rates since 1970 are for working-class men, who have experienced the greatest declines in real wages, and for working-class women, who have seen little wage growth.” They argue that if the minimum wage were raised to $12 per hour, there would be increased financial resources for young, unmarried workers and even more for working parents.

  1. Strengthen Collective Bargaining

Unions strengthen families because they bring security and stability for those in the union—and even for those in industries where the unionization rate is higher. “Researchers find that the connection between unions and marriage is ‘largely explained by the increased income, regularity and stability of employment, and fringe benefits that come with union membership,” report Robbins and Fremstad. Workers in states that have “right to work”—a policy that limits unions’ ability to organize workers–have lower wages and fewer benefits, and states without these laws have higher rates of unionization. And that leads us back to the takeaway here: States with more unionization have better wages and benefits for all.

  1. Expand Medicaid

“Unfortunately, while the nation’s uninsurance rate is at an all-time low, nearly 3 million adults still lack health insurance because 19 states have yet to expand Medicaid to eligible low-income adults,” write Robbins and Fremstad. Despite the availability of federal funds to people across the country, some states deny people Medicaid who could be personally eligible. Expansion of Medicaid—health insurance for people with low or no income–would lessen stress levels, financial burdens, poor health outcomes, and family instability, all of which are heightened when Medicaid is lacking.

  1. Support Reproductive Rights

They write: “Policies that support reproductive rights increase people’s ability to decide when and if to have children and are linked to higher levels of educational attainment and lifetime earnings for women.” When people are not given the control over when they have children, they note, it is harmful to their economic security. Robbins and Fremstad suggest that an expansion in Medicaid to cover birth control and other reproductive health options would help economic security and in the end help to strengthen families.

Together, these four policies are a compelling baseline for a progressive, pro-family agenda. As Robbins and Fremstad note, states that are promoting these four policies have “higher levels of educational attainment and lower levels of incarceration.” Their brief offers strong, clear recommendations. We will work… and see what 2017 brings.

Molly McNulty is a CCF Public Affairs Intern at Framingham State University. She is a senior Sociology and Education major.

Pallavi BanerjeePallavi Banerjee is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, and a Council on Contemporary Families expert. Her research focus includes international immigration, immigration policies, transnationalism, minority families, and gender. Banerjee’s most current project is Constructing Dependence:Visa Regimes and Gendered Migration in Families of Indian Professional Workers. With the different perspectives on immigration, Pallavi Banerjee’s work is very important: The recent election made us even more eager to hear about her research.

Q: What influenced you to study migration and gender in Indian professional families? For that matter, what puts a family under the category of a “professional family”?

PB: I learned about the dependent visas back in 1997 when I was still living in India as a freshman in college and was quite horrified by the implications of the visa policy for the kind of constraint it put on families. The dependent visa disallows spouses of “high-skilled temporary workers to work for pay until the lead immigrant worker has gained permanent residency in the U.S., a process that can take anywhere from six to 15 years.

When I came to the U.S to do my Ph.D. in 2005, I was taken aback to realize that these policies were still well and alive. I kept meeting Indian families and highly-qualified women who were forced to stay home and assume the role of the homemaker and caregiver due to the visas. But no one knew these families existed and the challenges they are facing. So, as an Indian immigrant woman who lived in the United States on many different kinds visas and had close personal associations with people whose lives were constrained by what I call the visa regime, my project is inspired by the merging of my personal and academic investment in understanding how immigration and visa laws affect immigrant “professional families” and how gendered patterns of migration further complicates their experiences.

I use the term “professional families” for the families in my study primarily for two reasons. One, under legal language people who migrate on H1-B (high-skilled) visas are labeled “high-skilled” visa holders because these workers mainly populate the high-tech and other “specialty occupations” like health care, finance, medicine, engineering, which are considered professional occupations. I deliberately rejected the “high-skilled” label because, as a sociologist, I do not see some occupations to be more skilled or more valuable than others. I would argue that a person migrating as a caregiver for children or elderly is as skilled in the job as a high-tech worker, and so it is misleading to categorize this occupation under low-skilled work. My second reason for calling these families “professional families” is that in most families in my study the spouse on the dependent visa was also highly-qualified and held a professional degree and even though they were not allowed to work in the U.S., they worked in professional occupations prior to migration.

Q: What have you discovered about international immigration policies affecting families that could be improved?

PB: My research shows that visa regimes that are predicated on state imposed dependence creates multiple dependence structures. Dependent spousal visas create within immigrant families a lifestyle that looks like a 1950 nuclear family where dad goes off to work and mom stays home to take care of the family. The skilled migration of workers and their families, as it stands now, creates a structure where the paid labor of the main migrant hinges on the unpaid labor of the dependent spouse – work that is devalued and has consequences for family stability and personhood of the visa holders. The migration trajectory is set up in a way that ensures that this system of dependence reproduces itself by charting the course of skilled migration to the U.S. and how we formulate our immigration policies based on this visa regime. Beyond my research, I think what needs to stop immediately is senseless and arbitrary deportation of undocumented families and family members that are ripping families apart. I argue that we dismantle the archaic and illogical laws like the dependent visa policy or mass deportation of families that creates enduring inequalities both within immigrant families and in the American society at large.

Q: There are often claims in American media that link immigration into the United States to threats such as ISIS. What are some ways to change the conversation about terrorism and immigration?

PB: Linking immigration in the United States to threats such as ISIS is extremely problematic and prejudicial. This rhetoric is not only used by the media but was used recently by President-elect Trump to fuel racism through the lowest form of fear-mongering. It is therefore very important to challenge this egregious discourse. Linking ISIS with immigration is anti-immigration and anti-Muslim. It supports public display of racist, Islamophobic, and xenophobic sentiments.

There are several ways to counter this rhetoric. You can explain the fact that immigrants boost the American economy is a well-researched finding. You can highlight the fact that getting into the U.S as an immigrant has become increasingly hard since 9/11 because the visa granting process in the United States involves detailed counter-terrorism screening by multiple law-enforcement and government security agencies for all kinds of visas granted. This shows that to assume that the U.S. is letting in ISIS when letting in immigrants is ignorant and foolhardy.

The fact is that, of all the terrorist attacks in America since 9/11, most were carried out by American-born lone wolves, most of whom had no links with ISIS at all. You can get across that the rhetoric that links immigrants to ISIS creates more divisions in our society in the ways that ISIS wants: They have made it quite clear that it’s their strategy to eliminate the “grayzone” where Muslims and non–Muslims live in peace so that all Muslims are forced to turn to them as they continue to feel unsafe.

Most importantly, I would say that the only way to change the conversation is every time such discourse is used we need to stand up and call it out for what it is – racist.

Eunice Owusu is a Council on Contemporary Families Public Affairs Intern and a sociology major at Framingham State University.


Screenshot courtesy Letta Page

Screenshot courtesy Letta Page

Over at Families as They Really Are, Erin Anderson has posted about men’s lagging uptake of family leave when it is available. Over here, we have prepared a round-up on how men are doing in families by looking back at papers from the Council on Contemporary Families.

An issue related to use (or not) of family leave has to do with the underlying security of jobs: In the CCF June 2013 Symposium on the Equal Pay Act, economist Heidi Shierholz wrote about the erosion of men’s wages in the past few decades. She explains, “In the late 1970s, after a long period of holding fairly steady, the gap in wages between men and women began improving. In 1979, the median hourly wage for women was 62.7 percent of the median hourly wage for men; by 2012, it was 82.8 percent. However, a big chunk of that improvement—more than a quarter of it—happened because of men’s wage losses, rather than women’s wage gains.” Read more here.

Some models show how to change men’s behavior. Anita Patnaik wrote this spring about Quebec’s non transferrable leave program and the positive results. In particular, the study demonstrates just how effective this generous benefit is in getting fathers more involved at home. With new benefits, fathers increased their participation in parental leave by 250 percent. In households where men were given the opportunity to use this benefit, fathers’ daily time in household work was 23 percent higher, long after the leave period ended. Background and details of economist Ankita Patnaik’s innovative study are provided in this briefing report.

Men’s engagement is looking pretty good, too, to several international scholars.Oriel Sullivan and colleagues compare national patterns in gender equity and housework, and note in their 2015 CCF brief, that the trend of men’s engagement with family is fundamentally forward and upward. “We argue that like most momentous historical trends, we shouldn’t expect progress towards gender equality to happen in an uninterrupted way. Just as we still see cold snaps within a process of longer-term climatic warming, the progress of gender equality should be seen as a long-term, uneven process, rather than as a single, all-at-once revolution.” You can read more here.

Arielle Kuperberg, also writing in a 2015 CCF brief, highlights good news about men in families more recently, too. In a report on cohabitation trends and best methods for studying those trends, she finds that marriage doesn’t have the kind of traditionalizing impact on participants than it has in the past. In reviewing some of the 21st century data (versus data from the 1990s), she noted, “By 2001-3, however, men who had lived together before marriage and men who were living together without marriage and thought they would marry their partner were doing the same amount and the same type of housework. This suggests that marriage had ceased to have any effect in making men feel that they ought to play more traditional roles, or can opt out of less traditional ones.” She notes, however, that when children arrive, some of this ground is lost. Read her report here.

Originally posted 9/30/15

The Equal Pay Act is often presumed to be an accomplishment of the feminist movement of the 1960s. In fact, it was spearheaded by female trade unionists, who first introduced the bill in 1945 as an amendment to the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. The bill was defeated, largely because of staunch opposition from business interests, but a coalition of labor activists reintroduced it every year until it finally passed in 1963.

The bill originally required “equal wage rates for work of comparable character on jobs the performance of which requires comparable skills,” wording that would have forced employers to pay women in traditionally sex-segregated jobs as much as men with comparable skills in traditionally male occupations. The 1963 act that finally passed was a compromise that instead required equal pay for “equal work.” Given the pervasiveness of job segregation by gender, this weakened requirement for equity ensured that the law had a far more limited impact.

Historic photo via Cornell University Kheel Center.

Historic photo via Cornell University Kheel Center.

Had the unionists gotten their way, the gains for women workers since 1963 would have been more evenly distributed along class lines. Whereas for elite professionals and many other college-educated workers, job segregation by gender has been substantially reduced in the past half-century, the extent of segregation in working-class jobs is just as high as it was in 1963.

Most non-college educated women remain trapped in the pink-collar ghetto, working as waitresses, child care and eldercare workers, or as clerical and retail sales workers. In such jobs women are typically paid at or near the minimum wage, often without even basic benefits like paid sick days, and with few opportunities for advancement. If the Equal Pay Act required equal pay for comparable work, child care workers, a traditionally female-dominated job, could not be paid less than zookeepers, for example.

Although female unionists led the campaign for the Act, at the time they were woefully underrepresented in the organized labor movement. In 1960, 24 percent of U.S. workers were unionized, but women made up only 18.3 percent of union members. Half a century later, in 2012, women make up nearly half (48.3 percent) of the U.S. workforce and nearly as large a proportion (45.0 percent) of all union members. Yet at the same time, the power and reach of unions have declined dramatically. Today, only 11 percent of American workers are union members, and in the private sector, the figure is below seven percent.

The simultaneous decline in union power and rise in female representation among unions reflects the massive expansion – starting in the 1960s and 1970s – of public-sector unionism, alongside the massive contraction of private-sector unionism over the same period. Women are overrepresented in public sector employment, making up a large majority of workers in fields like education, health care, and government administration- all now highly unionized sectors. In contrast, private-sector union membership is far more male-dominated, with strongholds in sectors like construction, utilities, transportation and manufacturing.

The labor movement has fought to improve women workers’ situation throughout American history. Today, women have a bigger stake than ever in the survival of unions.

Employers have successfully attacked private-sector unionism in the past few decades, and unionization rates have fallen apace. By contrast, until very recently public-sector unions remained largely intact. But starting in 2011, a wave of state-level legislation weakening collective bargaining rights for public sector workers has directly targeted teachers and other unionized female-dominated occupations. These attacks will roll back many of the gains women made since the 1960s. In 2012, the average hourly earnings of unionized women stood at $24.18, compared to $18.74 for nonunion women workers. Unionized workers also are much more likely than their nonunion counterparts to have access to benefits like employer-sponsored health insurance, paid sick days, and pensions. And union workers have more job security as well.The labor movement has fought to improve women workers’ situation throughout American history. And today, women have a bigger stake than ever before in the survival of unions – which now face unprecedented attacks and are virtually threatened with extinction. As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, we should not only recall the history of women in unions but also consider the potential impact of ongoing union decline on women working today.

Originally posted 6/23/14

Ruth Milkman is a sociologist of labor and labor movements who has written on a variety of topics involving work and organized labor in the United States, past and present. She is currently a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center and at the Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, where she teaches Labor Studies and also serves as Research Director.  

Recent scandals about sexual assaults on college campuses have provoked vehement debates about the scope of the problem. According to the White House task force formed to investigate the issue, 20 percent of undergraduate women — 1 in 5 — are sexually assaulted while in college. But some observers claim the problem has been blown way out of proportion. For example, Christina Hoff Sommers argued in a May 2014 article in Time magazine that this number is derived from biased samples and poorly-designed survey questions. Instead, she claims, only one-in-forty college women is a victim of rape or sexual assault.

Disagreement is not confined to political debate. In a 2011 report, the Bureau of Justice Statistics acknowledged that competing estimates of sexual violence have existed for two decades without ever being definitively resolved. In this brief we evaluate existing knowledge about the incidence and prevalence of sexual victimization of women attending American colleges and universities. We follow the Bureau of Justice Statistics definition of rape as a form of sexual assault that includes forced sexual intercourse, whether by physical or psychological coercion, involving penetration by the offender(s). We include in our definition of rape any act of sexual intercourse performed on an individual who is incapacitated as a result of being comatose, drugged, or asleep. To avoid ambiguity, we do not include sexual coercion or unwanted sexual contact such as grabbing or fondling—although the latter also meets the Bureau of Justice Statistics definition of sexual assault. Comparing multiple public health surveys—including nationally representative population surveys—we find it likely that between 7 and 10 percent of women experience forcible rape in college, and that somewhere between 14 and 26 percent experience sexual assault.

The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS)

Image by Tony Webster via Flickr CC

Image by Tony Webster via Flickr CC

The NCVS, conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, is the nation’s primary source of information about criminal victimization, collecting data annually from about 90,000 households, comprising 160,000 persons. It asks about a range of topics including robbery, simple and aggravated assault, theft, household burglary, and motor vehicle theft, as well as sexual victimization. It is the only such survey that has been fielded annually, using the same methods and questions, over a long period of time (since 1973). It is thus the only source for data on changes over time in the rates of sexual victimization in the U.S., and the most reliable source for comparing the rates of victimization of different groups in the population. Police reports offer another source of information about sexual victimization, but they are problematic because only a fraction of sexual victimizations are reported to the police.

Despite these advantages, questions have been raised about the reliability of NCVS estimates of sexual victimization. In 2011 the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) asked the National Research Council, through its Committee on National Statistics, to convene an expert panel to investigate the possible underestimation of rape in the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). National Academy of Sciences panels undergo rigorous peer review, and the entire committee must sign off on the final report, which gives their findings much weight in the scientific community. In this case, The Panel on Measuring Rape and Sexual Assault in Bureau of Justice Statistics Household Surveys (hereafter, “the Panel”) identified methodological problems with the NCVS that may lead to significant undercounting of rape and sexual assault.

First, the panel found that the fact that the survey is explicitly about crime likely inhibits reporting of assaults. Studies have consistently shown that many women do not label as “rape” or define as criminal many sexual incidents that are unwanted and meet standards of forcible rape. Some respondents may also think that only events reported to the police should be reported on a government crime survey. Others may fear that reporting the assault as a “crime” will get the perpetrator in trouble—something they may not want to do if he is a relative or partner.

Second, the data collection mode of the NCVS does not ensure privacy. The interviewer is required to question everyone 12 and older at designated households, which means that all residents know what others are being asked. These oral interviews may be overhead. Even if not overheard, other members of the household may be suspicious if an interview takes a long time. Given the special stigmatization attached to sexual behavior, this lack of privacy may impede reporting. The Panel additionally found that the NCVS may have recorded a person’s refusal to answer questions about sexual victimization as evidence that violence did not occur.

Image by Joey Gannon via Flickr CC

Image by Joey Gannon via Flickr CC

Third, there are serious problems with the questions about sexual victimization. The NCVS does not ask about incapacitated rape. It asks about “rape,” attempted rape,” and “other type of sexual attack”—but all these terms have ambiguous meanings. Unlike national public health surveys, which ask more behaviorally specific questions about sexual victimization, the NCVS terms failed to “describe behavior or convey the complexity of the intended concepts; a respondent might not realize that what she or he experienced did in fact fit the definition of attempted rape, and the questionnaire does not provide definitions.”

An indication of how these features of the survey lead to under-reporting can be found in a systematic comparison of public health and criminal justice methodologies undertaken by Bonnie Fisher and colleagues as part of the National College Women Sexual Victimization Survey (NCWSV). The researchers worked with the Bureau of Justice Statistics to simultaneously conduct two studies using an experimental design. One set of respondents was asked questions about sexual victimization using a screening questionnaire asking 10 behavioral specific questions (e.g. “has anyone made you have sexual intercourse by using force or threatening to harm you or someone close to you?”). The other set of respondents was questioned using the NCVS protocol, which skipped people past any further questions about sexual victimization if they responded negatively to a question “have you been forced or coerced to engage in unwanted sexual activity?” The two studies were both in the field in 1996 and—aside from the question wording—employed exactly the same design. In both cases, participants were asked to report incidents that occurred within the approximately seven months “since school began in fall 1996.”

The crime wording captured just 9.4 percent of the incidents of completed rape reported by respondents who were asked the behaviorally worded questions. No wonder the Panel found that even the most conservative of the public health surveys, the 1990 National Women’s Study (NWS), produced an estimate of completed rape five times higher than that produced by the NCVS. The Panel judged the problems with the NCVS to be so fundamental that sexual victimization could not be accurately measured within the context of an omnibus crime survey. The Panel recommended that the Bureau of Justice Statistics develop a separate survey for measuring rape and sexual assault.

Declines in Rape and Sexual Assault Over Time

Although the National Crime Victimization Survey probably underreports rape and sexual assault, its methodology has been largely consistent over time. As a result, the NCVS may capture trends in violence even if it does not accurately estimate the absolute level at any particular time. NCVS data suggest that sexual victimization has declined over time. A Bureau of Justice Statistics report published in March 2013 and based on NVCS data, “Female Victims of Sexual Violence, 1994–2010” found that “From 1995 to 2005, the total rate of sexual violence committed against U.S. female residents age 12 or older declined 64%. … It then remained unchanged from 2005 to 2010.” On the other hand, public health surveys do not show a decline in estimates of rapes over time—even when restricting analysis to questions about forcible rape.

Higher Victimization Rates of Young Women Not in College

It is often assumed that female college students are at increased risk compared to their peers of the same age who are not attending college. Yet a Bureau of Justice Statistics Report entitled “Rape And Sexual Assault Among College-Age Females, 1995-2013” published in December 2014 found that 18-to-24 year old females not enrolled in a post-secondary school were 1.2 times more likely to experience rape and sexual assault victimization than college students in the same age range. These estimates were drawn from the NCVS, which does not ask about rape while incapacitated as a result of drugs or alcohol. Since a substantial amount of rape and sexual assault on campus involves using alcohol as a means of rendering victims unable to resist, the above study may underestimate the risk to students. Still, as Jennifer Barber documents in her related policy brief, women who are not in college experience more intimate partner violence in dating and romantic relationships than college women. It is possible that alcohol-facilitated sexual assault may be more common among college women, while intimate partner violence may be more common among non-college women.

Surveys of College Women: Prevalence of Sexual Assault

The NCVS is not the only source of data on the incidence and prevalence of rape and sexual assault. We focus here on the results of five different surveys of college women’s sexual victimization conducted between 1984 and 2014 (see the Appendix for details about these and other surveys and Table 1 for results). We compared responses to the question about forced sexual intercourse across the five surveys, throwing out the highest estimate (which included rapes since age 14, and which was conducted in 1984) and the lowest estimate (which included only women attending MIT and did not isolate seniors). The College Sexual Assault (CSA) and Online College Social Life (OCSLS) surveys asked college seniors about the entirety of their time in college, producing estimates of 7 percent and 10 percent, respectively. The third study, the National College Women Sexual Victimization (NCWSV), asked only about incidents that occurred in the last 7 months. Multiplying the 1.7 percent incidence found in that survey by 5 (to cover 35 months on campus) offers a rough estimate of the risk over the course of college. This produced an estimated prevalence rate of 8.5. Taken together, these studies suggest that between 7 and 10 percent of undergraduate women experience forcible rape in college.

To calculate the prevalence of sexual assault in college, we combined responses to the question about forced sex with questions about incapacitated and attempted rape. The Online College Social Life (OCSLS) survey asked respondents these questions: “Since you started college, has someone tried to physically force you to have sexual intercourse, but you got out of the situation without having intercourse?” and “Since you started college, has someone had sexual intercourse with you that you did not want when you were drunk, passed out, asleep, drugged, or otherwise incapacitated?” Focusing on the three surveys above, we found affirmative responses ranging from 14 to 26 percent. That the estimates range from about 1 in 7 to 1 in 4 is not satisfying—but even the lowest one is far higher than the 1 in 40 number that Hoff Sommers cited, and they do not include cases of unwanted touching, grabbing, or fondling or psychological coercion (e.g. situations where individuals consent to sex after begging or pleading).

These surveys suggest that the 1 in 5 statistic so frequently quoted is reasonable, even though inexact. The two most comparable recent surveys—the CSA and OCSLS — converge on a figure of 25 to 26 percent of college women experiencing sexual assault in college—as Jessie Ford and Paula England note in a recent discussion of the finding of the Online College Social Life Survey.

The results of these surveys are certainly not definitive. The Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) survey studied only two universities and all the surveys had small sample sizes. Only two of the studies employed a national sampling frame. The problem is less with the flaws of particular studies, and more with the lack of a sustained national investment in collecting high quality data on the issue. The federal government only initiated a large-scale, annual, nationally representative public health survey of sexual victimization in 2010—the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS). This survey found that 12.3 percent of women of all ages reported having experienced forced intercourse. Because young women are more at risk of sexual victimization, this is compatible with the estimate that 7 to 10 percent of women experience forcible rape in college.

We were also able to compare the above surveys with highly regarded demographic surveys (see the Appendix for details on these surveys). These surveys asked only a few questions about sexual victimization and did not focus on college women, but nonetheless served as a useful check on the results of the surveys discussed above. For example, we looked at the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), which is conducted by the Centers for Disease Control. Based on a large (n=@19,000) nationally representative sample, it is the most widely used source of information about patterns of pregnancy, contraception, and fertility in the U.S. This survey found that just under 20 percent of 20–24 year old women surveyed in 2002 reported having ever experienced forced intercourse.


Image by Jaybird via Flickr CC

Image by Jaybird via Flickr CC

There are several reasons we do not have better data. Attitudes about what forms of nonconsensual sex are unacceptable have been in flux throughout the period under discussion in this report. In historical terms, changes in laws and attitudes about nonconsensual sex have been rapid: rape within marriage was not criminalized in all 50 U.S. states until 1993. Even now, some people view nonconsensual grabbing and fondling of young women as normal and acceptable, particularly when young women are socializing with same-age peers. What constitutes consent and what forms of unwanted sexual activity constitute assault continue to be contested.

In addition, gender-based violence has not been a central concern of U.S. family demographers or the National Institutes of Health, despite the fact that gender-based violence may be related to outcomes such as early and unintended pregnancy, inconsistent contraceptive use, engagement in risky health behaviors, and educational attainment.

Despite the limits of the existing data, we can all agree that even the lowest estimates represent substantial numbers of women who experience sexual assault or rape, and surely we can also agree that better data is needed to develop appropriate responses to sexual violence on campus and beyond, as well as to determine what preventative measures are most likely to work. We should encourage the Bureau of Justice Statistics to implement the recommendations of the Panel on Measuring Rape and Sexual Assault in Bureau of Justice Statistics Household Surveys. For now, though, we believe it is reasonable — even conservative — to work on the assumption that without stronger preventive action, somewhere between 14 and 26 percent of female undergraduates will experience sexual assault during their time in college.

This was part of the CCF Online Symposium on Intimate Partner Violence

Abbey, A. (2002). Alcohol-related Sexual Assault: A Common Problem among College Students. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, (14), 118. Retrieved from

Barber, J.S., Kusunoki, Y., & Budnick, J. (2015). “Women who are not enrolled in four-year universities and colleges have higher risk of sexual assault.”

Black, M. C., Basile, K. C., Breiding, M. J., Smith, S. G., Walters, M. L., Merrick, M. T., & Stevens, M. R. (2011). National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. Atlanta, GA: CDC. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from

Bureau of Justice Statistics. (1973-2013). Data Collection: National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). Retrieved from

Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2011). BJS Activities on Measuring Rape and Sexual Assault. Retrieved from

Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2013) Female Victims of Sexual Violence, 1994-2010. Retrieved from

Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2014). Rape And Sexual Assault Among College-Age Females, 1995-2013. (NCJ 248471). Retrieved from

Chandra, A., Martinez, G. M., Mosher, W. D., Abma, J. C., & Jones, J. (2005). “Fertility, Family Planning, and Reproductive Health of US Women: Data from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth. Vital and Health Statistics. Series 23, Data from the National Survey of Family Growth, (25), 1-160. Retrieved from

Fisher, B. S. (2009). “The Effects of Survey Question Wording on Rape Estimates: Evidence from a Quasi-experimental Design.” Violence Against Women, 15, 133- 147. Retrieved from See also

Fisher, B., Cullen, F. & Turner, M. (2000). The Sexual Victimization of College Women. (NCJ #182369.) Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice. Retrieved from

Fisher, B., Daigle, L., Cullen, F., & Turner, M. (2003). “Acknowledging Sexual Victimization as Rape: Results from a National-Level Study.” Justice Quarterly 20(3), 535-574. Retrieved from

Forbes, J. and England, P. (2015). “What Percent of College Women are Sexually Assaulted in College?” Contexts online blog, published by the American Sociological Association. Retrieved from

Kilpatrick, D.G., Edmunds, C., & Seymour, A. (1992). Rape in America: A Report to the Nation. Charleston, SC: National Victim Center & the Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center, Medical University of South Carolina. Retrieved from

Koss, M. P., Gidycz, C. A., & Wisniewski, N. (1987). “The Scope of Rape: Incidence and Prevalence of Sexual Aggression and Victimization in a National Sample of Higher Education Students.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 55, 162-170. Retrieved from

Krebs, C.P., Lindquist, C.H., Warner, T.D., Fisher, B.S., & Martin, S.L. (2007). The Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Study. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from

Kruttschnitt, C., Kalsbeek, W. D., & House, C. C. (Eds.). (2014). Estimating the Incidence of Rape and Sexual Assault. National Academies Press. Retrieved from For a report brief

Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (2014). Survey Results: 2014 Community Attitudes on Sexual Assault. Retrieved from

Miller, Jody. (2008). Getting Played: African American Girls, Urban Inequality, and Gendered Violence. New York: New York University Press.

White House. (2014). Not Alone: The First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://

Originally posted 5/07/15

Elizabeth Armstrong is a Professor of Sociology and Organizational Studies at the University of Michigan where she conducts research in the areas of sexuality, gender, culture, organizations, social movements, and higher education.

Jamie Budnick is a Sociology Doctoral Candidate at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Tiring? Never! Photo by Harsha K R via Flickr CC.

Tiring? Never! Photo by Harsha K R via Flickr CC.

In a dramatic shift in attitudes from just 40 years ago, most modern couples want to share the duties and rewards of work and family equally. However, this is particularly difficult for new parents in the U.S. in light of limited governmental support and persistent traditional gender norms. The U.S. offers inadequate paid parental leave and few options for cutting hours at work, while the cost of quality infant child care is exceptionally high. Thus parenthood is especially challenging for U.S. couples—the majority of whom are dual-earners who strive to achieve a work/family balance.

We studied 182 different-sex couples who were expecting their first child. Most were professionals who were well-positioned to equally share housework, parenting, and paid work responsibilities due to their high levels of education and the fact that both partners were working full-time. During the last trimester of the woman’s pregnancy and at 9-months postpartum, we had these men and women keep time diaries, recording every activity they engaged in during a 24-hour workday and non-workday. We also surveyed them about their own attitudes and perceptions of their division of labor at the beginning of our study and again when their child was nine months old.

In our initial interviews, these couples told us that they believed in sharing household responsibilities equally—and our time diaries confirmed that in fact they successfully did so before the baby was born. On average, both women and men perceived they were doing about 60 hours of work, including paid work and housework, per week. The time-diary data we collected, which are more accurate than retrospective survey data on how people spend their time, supported their perceptions. Women and men reported about 15 hours of housework and between 42 and 45 hours of paid work per week. This means that before the babies were born, most couples had achieved a balanced division of labor.

When we surveyed these expectant couples about their future, most said they wanted to continue to equally share housework and childcare after their baby was born. More than 95 percent of both men and women agreed that “men should share with child care such as bathing, feeding, and dressing the child” and that “it is equally as important for a father to provide financial, physical, and emotional care to his children.”

When their babies were 9 months old, both parents felt that parenthood had increased their workload by about 30 hours a week. Their time diaries revealed that their perceptions did not match their realities.

We surveyed the couples again when their babies were 9 months old, asking them how much time they were now spending in paid work, housework, and child care. Both the men and the women reported that they were each performing 90 hours of work per week, including housework, childcare, and paid labor. That is, they both felt that parenthood increased their workload by about 30 hours a week. Men reported that they were doing 35 hours of housework, 15 hours of child care, and 41 hours of paid work per week. Women reported that they were doing 27 hours of housework, 28 hours of child care, and 35 hours of paid work per week.

This time, however, their perceptions did not match their reality. Using our detailed time diaries, we were able to construct a much more accurate account of their work weeks than they retrospectively estimated in the surveys, and the results were quite different than the parents reported to us. Women performed 15 ½ hours of physical child care per week, including physical child care (changing diapers, feeding the baby)—12 hours less than they thought they were performing. They also performed 6 hours of child engagement (playing and reading with the baby), but we did not survey them on their perceptions of the time spent engaging with their child. Women spent 42 hours doing paid work—six hours more than they thought they spent in their jobs—and 13.5 hours doing housework—14 hours lessthan what they thought they were doing.

Men did about 10 hours of physical child care—5 fewer hours than they thought they were doing. Men put in 46 hours of paid work—5 hours more than they thought they put in at work. Their estimates of housework diverged especially sharply from what they recorded in their time diaries. The time diaries revealed that on average the men did just 9 hours of housework—only one-fourth as much as they thought they were doing (men estimated that they performed 35 hours of housework).

In other words, on average, 9 months after the transition to parenthood, women added 22 hours of childcare (physical and engagement) to their work week while doing the same amount of housework and paid work as before. Men added 14 hours of childcare to their work week, but did 5 fewer hours of housework after the baby’s birth.

Before the baby was born, a man’s average work week (paid and unpaid hours combined) was three hours longer than his partner’s. But after the birth of their child, the man’s total workload averaged about 8 and half hours less per week than his partner’s. Women’s total weekly workload increased from 56 to 77 hours across the transition to parenthood, while men’s increased from 59 to 69 hours.

Thus, over the course of a year, our calculations indicate that parenthood increased women’s total workload by about 4 ½ weeks of 24-hour days, whereas parenthood increased men’s total workload by approximately 1 ½ weeks—a 3-week per year gender gap.

Parenthood is a time-consuming activity that changes the rhythm of daily life, but new parents perceive the work as even more time-consuming than it actually is.

Parenting an infant is a time-consuming activity that changes the rhythm of daily life. But it is especially fascinating that new parents, and particularly men, perceive the work of parenthood to be even more time-consuming than it actually is. Parenthood does result in increased work, but men and women are not actually working 30 hours more per week after their babies are born. Women come close—working 21 more hours per week after the birth of their first child. Men do much less than they—or their wives—perceive: parenthood only adds 13 hours of work for men.

It is possible that fathers will become more involved in physical childcare and engagement as the babies grow into running and talking toddlers. But we would argue that men and women should openly confront the workload inequities that develop in their child’s first nine months because renegotiating the division of labor once routines are established is really difficult.

Furthermore, if these inequities are not addressed early, some women may feel compelled to leave or reduce their hours in the labor force, diminishing their own career opportunities as well as the family’s ability to save for college and retirement. In turn, women’s “opting out” of paid work may result in men’s opting out of even more family work. Thus, children may miss out on the benefits of involved fathering for their social, emotional, and cognitive development.

New parents who desire equality over the long haul might be well-advised to address rather than deny the inequalities that develop in the early months of parenthood. Couples who recognize that the transition to parenthood is a “magic moment” and split family work evenly will enjoy the benefits—more satisfying relationships and more economic resources and security.

Originally posted 6/22/15

Jill Yavorsky is in the sociology program at The Ohio State University, where Claire Kamp Dush is a professor of human sciences and sociology and chair of the graduate program in human development and family science and Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan is a professor of human sciences and psychology and the director of the Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy.

photo via Pixabay

photo via Pixabay

Why are families less economically secure today? After all, there’s been four decades of families seeming to have the opportunity to earn more and do better—this largely due to women’s movement into the U.S. workforce. According to a new report, women’s increased earnings and hours have been vital in the American family’s search for economic security. How has that search gone? Heather Boushey and Kavya Vaghul’s new report “Women have made the difference for family economic security” offers some answers.

Boushey, Executive Director and Chief Economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, and research team member Vaghul used data from the Current Population survey to focus on changes in family income between 1979 and 2013 for low-, middle-, and professional-income families. They delved into the difference between men’s and women’s earnings regarding greater pay, as well as women’s earning as a function of more hours worked. They also looked at other sources of income between 1979 and 2013.

Boushey and Vaghul had three main findings:

  • Low income families lost, while middle income and professional families gained. “Between 1979 and 2013, on average, low-income families in the United States saw their incomes fall by 2.0 percent. Middle-income families, however, saw their incomes grow by 12.4 percent, and professional families saw their incomes rise by 48.8 percent.”
  • In all social classes, women’s hours of paid work increased. “Over the same time period, the average woman in the United States saw her annual working hours increase by 26.4 percent. This trend was similar across low-income, middle-class, and professional families.”
  • Women’s contributions saved the day for low and middle income families. “Across all three income groups, women significantly helped family incomes both because they earned more per hour and worked more per year. Women’s contributions saved low-income and middle-class families from steep drops in their income.”

What about men? Between 1979 and 2013 men’s earnings fell while women increased both their working hours and pay per hour. That made women’s growing movement into the workforce even more important. Women’s work meant that the average annual income for low income families rose by $1,929, $8,948 for middle-class families, and $20,274 for professional families.

By pointing to women’s dramatic increases in hours worked and wages as well as men’s surprising decline in those same areas, Boushey and Vaghul demonstrate that women’s time at work make all the difference –across all income groups.

It is about finding time. While women’s entry into the workforce has significantly changed the make-up of family incomes, the U.S. still lacks proper policies to make such work manageable for families. The pressure being placed on workers to manage their family while making enough money to support them is examined in detail in Heather Boushey’s new book, Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict.

Originally posted May 17, 2016

Molly McNulty is a CCF public affairs intern at Framingham State University. She is a joint Sociology and Education major.