The Council on Contemporary Families Gender and Millennials Online Symposium presents new research on how Millennial men and women are changing—and how they are not changing. Countering the recent trend of ignoring inconvenient facts, this symposium makes it clear that attitudes about gender equality are more complex than either supporters or opponents of feminism often admit. Here’s a quick review of the brief reports.

The Council on Contemporary Families has released a Gender and Millennials Online Symposium revealing that young adults have become less supportive of gender equality at home over the past two decades—though not in Europe, where work/family policies are more generous. Yet the benefits of egalitarian marriages, for both partners, have increased during the same time frame.

In this eight-part series, there’s the old news: women and men are more likely to endorse gender equality than ever—and they live lives that express that. Then there’s the not-so-old news: progress toward gender equality has slowed since the 1990s. Some call it a stall. And there’s new news: youthful gender attitudes are more variable than we thought, and at least among younger Millennials, a continued endorsement of equality at work has been accompanied by a dip in support for equality at home. And therein lies the complex set of reports that comprise the Council on Contemporary Families Gender and Millennials Online Symposium, released March 31.

The keynote essay, “Trending Towards Traditionalism? Changes in Youths’ Gender Ideology,” by sociologists Joanna Pepin (University of Maryland) and David Cotter (Union College), reports that when it comes to work and politics, young adults are increasingly egalitarian. But when it comes to home life, the 40-year-long move toward gender equality has stopped or reversed in recent years.

The trends: Specifically, Pepin and Cotter report:

  • In 1994, 42 percent of high-school seniors felt that the best family was one where the man was the outside achiever and the woman took care of the home. In 2014 this had gone up to 58 percent.
  • In 1994, 48 percent of high school seniors said a mother who works cannot establish as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work. In 2014, the share disagreeing went up to about 60 percent.

While young people endorse at rates of 90 percent or higher the idea that men and women should be equal at work, Pepin and Cotter see a trend in greater traditionalism at home. They call this “egalitarian essentialism”—a concept that seems to go a long way in describing the complex trends in gender attitudes presented today. In her overview essay “CCF Gender and Millennials Online Symposium: Overview,” historian Stephanie Coontz defines egalitarian essentialism as combining “a commitment to equality of opportunity with the belief that men and women typically choose different opportunities because men are ‘inherently’ better suited to some roles and women to others.” Coontz explains, “Egalitarian essentialism assumes that as long as women are not prevented from choosing high-powered careers, or forced out of them upon parenthood, their individual choices are freely made and are probably for the best.”

Nika Fate-Dixon identifies similar trends among young people in the 18-25 age group, using data collected since 1977. In “Millennials Rethinking the Gender Revolution? Long-Range Trends in Views of Non-Traditional Roles for Women,” she found that by 1994, 84 percent disagreed with the claim that a woman’s place was in the home. In 2014, however, the percent disagreeing had dropped to three-quarters. While Pepin and Cotter found that the backtracking on gender equality occurred among both men and women high-school seniors, Fate-Dixon found a sharp and growing gender gap among people in their early 20s. As noted below, this was a clear trend through 2014, but the 2016 GSS data no longer follow this pattern. Researchers await more results and analyses.

Politics: Young people—ages 18-30—were by far the strongest supporters of Clinton over Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election. However, according to Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg’s “How Gender Mattered to Millennials in the 2016 Election and Beyond,” only 25 percent of the women Millennial voters and 15 percent of the Millennial men identified as feminists. Furthermore, Kawashima-Ginsberg, Director of Tuft University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE), Millennials’ support for Clinton in 2016 was ten percentage points lower than their vote for Obama in 2008, further evidence for a dip in enthusiasm for gender equality.

Other political research presented by political scientist Dan Cassino (Fairleigh Dickinson University) in “Some men feel the need to compensate for relative loss of income to women. How they do so varies” suggests that some men have reacted negatively to women’s economic gains. During the primaries, male voters who were reminded of women’s growing economic clout became markedly less likely to express a preference for Hillary Clinton. When Cassino studied men who had actually lost income relative to their wives, however, Republicans and Democrats reacted in different ways. Men who were Democrats became more liberal as their share of household earnings fell, while Republican men became more conservative.

Married life: In “A View From Above: How Structural Barriers to Sharing Unpaid Work at Home May Lead to “Egalitarian Essentialism” in Youth,” Dan Carlson, assistant professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah, suspects that this backsliding on gender equality is less a product of gender threat than it is due to the absence of work/family policies that make domestic equality possible. Since the 1990s, the historically higher risk of divorce for couples where the wife earns more than her husband has disappeared. And these days, in contrast to the past, couples in which husband and wife equally divide family chores and child-rearing now report higher marital and sexual satisfaction than more traditional couples. Carlson suggests that support for domestic equality continues to strengthen among children of dual-earners when they have access to family-friendly work policies, but that youth who have seen their parents overwhelmed by economic and time pressures may have gotten discouraged.

Research on European countries—where social supports for families are stronger—backs Carlson up. Using European public opinion surveys, Professor Jan Van Bavel (University of Leuven) found no dips in egalitarianism related to home life or work life in “The Reversal of the Gender Gap in Education and the Continued Push towards Gender Equality.” He writes, “In the more recent round of the European Social Survey, in 2010, the responses tended to be less conservative and more gender egalitarian than six years earlier, in 2004.”

Well, maybe “Millennials” isn’t such a great category. In “The Use and Abuse of Millennials as an Analytic Category,” sociologist Frank Furstenberg (University of Pennsylvania) warns against over-generalizations about such a diverse group as the Millennials. He argues that the 18-to-25-year-olds interviewed in 2014 are not really comparable to those interviewed in 1994: They are far less likely to be married or employed in permanent jobs than this age group 20 or 40 years earlier. In her overview essay, historian Coontz notes that CCF Board President Barbara Risman’s research supports this warning against stereotyping a generation. In Risman’s interviews with Millennials for a forthcoming book, she was struck by the contradictory expectations about gender and family life expressed even within a single conversation. Furstenberg and Van Bavel suggest that as youths enter married life, and especially if they gain access to family-friendly work policies, they may well change their views. But Pepin and Cotter warn that this is by no means inevitable.

Update: After this symposium was released last Friday, 2016 data from the General Social Survey became available. The latest numbers show a sharp rebound in young men’s disagreement with the claim that male-breadwinner families are superior. GSS two-year trends are exceptionally volatile, due to the small size of the sample, and the overall decade averages still confirm a rise in traditionalism among 18-to-25-year-olds since the 1990s. But the new data shows that this rise is no longer driven mainly by young men, as it appeared to be in the General Social Survey results from 1994 through 2014. Other evidence for a Millennial gender gap still stands, so stay tuned for more updates on this moving target.

Originally prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families Online Symposium on Gender and Millennials March 31, 2017. 

This column was prepared for CCF by Virginia Rutter, Professor of Sociology, Framingham State University, and Megan Peterson, CCF Public Affairs and Social Media Intern, Framingham State University.

Today, the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs convenes an open hearing on “Fostering Economic Growth: The Role of Financial Companies.” This spurred us to revisit research on how economic opportunities for African Americans has unfolded in the United States. This brief was originally prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families Online Symposium on Civil Rights February 4-6, 2014.  


In 1963, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, the momentous demonstration that helped spur passage of the Civil Rights Act the following year. He described African Americans as living “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” A half-century after the Civil Rights Act we can assess how much progress African-Americans have made in key areas such education, employment, income, health, and longevity.

Certainly, many African Americans have moved into positions of power that were scarcely imaginable when Dr. King gave his speech. In 1964 there were only 100 Black elected officials in the country. By 1990 there were 10,000. Since then there have been two Black Secretaries of State, and America’s first African-American president is now in his second term.

The number of Black households earning $100,000 a year or more has increased by 500 percent in the past 50 years, to about one-in-ten of Black households. African Americans have even headed several Fortune 500 companies. Examples include Dr. Clifton R. Wharton, Jr., former Chairman and CEO of TIAA-CREF, Ursula M. Burns, Chairman and CEO of Xerox Corp., Kenneth I. Chenault, Chairman and CEO at American Express, and Kenneth C. Frazier, President and CEO of Merck & Co. Inc. Many African Americans have also attained unprecedented wealth, status, and respect in the news, entertainment, and sports industries.

Yet despite these individual attainments, African Americans remain heavily underrepresented in the highest ranks of the business world, comprising barely one percent of the CEOs of the Fortune 500. Oprah Winfrey is the only African American on the Forbes 400 richest Americans list. And in the lower echelons of the income ladder, racial economic disparities have been remarkably persistent and gotten worse in a few respects.


Over the past 50 years, there has been considerable progress in the educational attainments of African Americans, although they still lag behind the levels of Whites. In 1966, the high school completion rate of African Americans was just a little more than half that of White Americans. By 2012 it was almost 95 percent that of Whites. In 1966, fewer than four percent of African Americans, compared to more than ten percent of Whites, had college degrees. By 2012, the percentage of African Americans with college degrees had risen to 21.2, compared to 31.3 percent for Whites (U.S. Census, Education and Social Stratification Branch, 2013). See figures below (click to expand).

Source: U.S. Census Bureau. 1947, and 1952 to 2002 March Current Population Survey, 2003 to 2012 Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the Current Population Survey (non-institutionalized population, excluding members of the Armed Forces living in barracks); 1950 Census of Population and 1940 Census of Population (resident population).
Source: U.S. Census Bureau. 1947, and 1952 to 2002 March Current Population Survey, 2003 to 2012 Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the Current Population Survey (non-institutionalized population, excluding members of the Armed Forces living in barracks); 1950 Census of Population and 1940 Census of Population (resident population).
Source: U.S. Census Bureau. 1947, and 1952 to 2002 March Current Population Survey, 2003 to 2012 Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the Current Population Survey (non-institutionalized population, excluding members of the Armed Forces living in barracks); 1950 Census of Population and 1940 Census of Population (resident population).
Source: U.S. Census Bureau. 1947, and 1952 to 2002 March Current Population Survey, 2003 to 2012 Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the Current Population Survey (non-institutionalized population, excluding members of the Armed Forces living in barracks); 1950 Census of Population and 1940 Census of Population (resident population).

But after declines in school segregation during the 1970s and 1980s, progress leveled off and even reversed in some areas. In 1968, 76.6 percent of African American children attended segregated schools. In 2012, 74 percent of African American children were in segregated schools, 15 percent of them in schools where less than one percent of the student body was White (Orfield, Kucsera, & Siegel-Hawley, 2012). Majority Black schools are generally characterized by lower funding, lower teacher quality, and higher drop-out rates than majority White schools (The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, 2013).

Employment and Income.

There have been significant improvements in employment opportunities for African Americans over the past half century. In 1960, only 6.7 percent of African Americans in the labor market were in professional and managerial positions, compared to 26 percent of Whites (Smith & Welch, 1977). By contrast, in 2012, 30 percent of employed African Americans were in professional and managerial positions, compared to 39 percent of employed Whites (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012). African American women have made especially significant gains and are now more likely than their male counterparts to occupy professional and managerial positions.

However, African Americans professionals earn significantly less than their White peers, and African American women in such occupations earn less than their male counterparts. In 2012, the median weekly earnings for African American women who worked in “management, professional, and related occupations” were $838, compared to $958 for White women, $1,021 for African American men, and $1,339 for White men (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012). See bottom of page for charts on median household income in historically and recently by race.

Overall, despite absolute progress in Black earnings, the income gap between Blacks and Whites remains large. In 1963, African American workers earned 55 cents for every dollar earned by Whites. By 2012, that had risen to 78.4 cents, leaving Blacks still more than 20 percent behind (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013).

The wealth gap is even higher, due to the lower value of homes in predominantly black communities and the much smaller access of African Americans to any accumulated wealth of parents and grandparents. The median wealth of White households is ten times as large as that of Black households.

Educational disparities may explain some of the remaining gap in pay equity. We have come some distance from the 1960s, when African Americans with a four-year college degree earned less than White men with only a high school diploma (Katz & Stern, 2006; Taylor, 1981). Today, by contrast, being college graduate counts for more than being a White man in determining earnings.

Yet as late as 2012, African American men and women still earned less than their White peers with the same level of education. For male college graduates over age 25, Whites’ weekly earnings were $1,399, compared to $1,086 for African Americans. College–graduated Black women, aged 25 years and older, had weekly earnings of $913, compared to $1,012 for White women with similar educational attainment. White men with a high school diploma earned over $150 more a week than similarly-educated African American men — $760 vs. $604 per week. In fact, a Black man with an associate’s degree earns, on average, $15 per week less than a White man with only a high-school diploma (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013).

Unemployment and Poverty.

African Americans are also more likely to lose their jobs during economic downturns (see figures below; click to expand). Despite ups and downs in unemployment for all racial and ethnic groups, the Black unemployment rate has consistently been twice as high as that of Whites since the 1950s.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Table B-35 & Table B-37. Data related to persons 16 years of age and over.
Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Table B-35 & Table B-37. Data related to persons 16 years of age and over.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, (2013). Labor force characteristics by race and ethnicity, 2012.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, (2013). Labor force characteristics by race and ethnicity, 2012.
 And since 1964, the poverty rate of African Americans has consistently been morethan twice that of Whites. Worse, Blacks are far more likely to live in areas of concentrated poverty. Among Americans born between 1985 and 2000, 31 percent of Blacks, versus only one percent of Whites, live in neighborhoods where 30 percent of the residents are poor (see figures below; click to expand).
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. Information on poverty and income statistics: A summary of 2012 current population survey data.
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. Information on poverty and income statistics: A summary of 2012 current population survey data.
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. Information on poverty and income statistics: A summary of 2012 current population survey data.
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. Information on poverty and income statistics: A summary of 2012 current population survey data.

Social and Institutional Disparities.

African American children are at greater risk than their White counterparts for numerous problems associated with growing up in poverty, (e.g., poor prenatal health care, malnutrition, poor quality housing, and exposure to environmental toxins). This helps explain why African Americans are disproportionately affected by chronic illnesses, such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, and, because of lack of access to quality health care, are more likely to die from these illnesses and diseases (Mead, Cartwright-Smith, Jones, Ramos, Woods, & Siegel, 2008). Blacks are three times as likely to die from asthma as Whites. Black women are less likely than White women to develop breast cancer, but more likely to die from it (Mead et al, 2008). And Black maternal mortality rates are three to four times higher than rates for Whites. (See end of paper for charts of racial and ethnic health disparities by race.)

While life expectancies for all Americans have greatly improved over time, African Americans continue to have a shorter life expectancy than Whites. In 2008, there was a 5.5 year gap between African American and White men, and a 3.8 year gap between African American and White women (U.S. Census, 2010). African American men have the shortest life expectancy at birth of all Americans across racial and ethnic groups (see figure below; click to expand).

Source: U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics Reports (NVSR), Deaths: Preliminary data for 2008, Vol, 59, No.2.
Source: U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics Reports (NVSR), Deaths: Preliminary data for 2008, Vol, 59, No.2.


The rate of imprisonment is one area where there has been significant deterioration for African Americans in the past half-century. Incarceration rates among African American men are three times higher than 50 years ago and the disparity between incarceration rates for African Americans and Whites has continued to grow. African American men are more likely to be arrested and receive longer sentences for nonviolent drug crimes than Whites committing similar or more serious offenses. In consequence, African Americans, who are just ten percent of the overall U.S. population, represent 35.4 percent of the prison population, with an incarceration rate more than six times higher than Whites. One in three African American men can expect to go to prison at some point in his life time, compared to one in 17 White men. (Pettit & Western, 2004).


As we reflect on the state of African Americans 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, it is clear that despite the progress made in many arenas of life, African Americans are still burdened by the legacy of slavery, segregation, and discrimination. In fact, it may be that the dramatic successes of a minority of Blacks have made it harder for Americans to recognize the continuing disparities and injustices facing the remainder.

Originally posted 1/21/15

For further information, contact Velma McBride Murry, Professor and Betts Chair, Human and Organizational Development Dept., Vanderbilt University;


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010). National Center for Health Statistics. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Eggebeen, D. J., & Lichter, D. T. (1991). Race, family structure, and changing poverty among American children. American Sociological Review, 801-817.

Gabe, Thomas (2013). Poverty in the United States: 2012. Congressional Research Service (CRS) based on U.S. Census Bureau 2012 and 2011 American Community Survey (ACS) data.

Katz, Michael and Stern, Mark, One Nation Indivisible (2006). Russell Sage, p. 95.

King, Martin Luther; King, Coretta Scott (2008). The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Second Edition. Newmarket Press. p. 95.

Lichter, D., ZHENCHAO, Q., & Crowley, M. (2006). Race and poverty: Divergent fortunes of America’s children?. Focus24(3), 8-16.

Loeber, R., Pardini, D., Homish, D.L., Wei, E.H., Crawford, A.M., Farrington, D.P., et al. (2004). The prediction of violence and homicide in young men. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76, 1074–1088

Mead, H., Cartwright-Smith, L., Jones, K., Ramos, C., Woods, K., & Siegel, B. (2008). Racial and ethnic disparities in US health care: A chart book. Commonwealth Fund New York.

Orfield, G., Kucsera, J., & Siegel-Hawley, G. (2012). E Pluribus… Separation: Deepening Double Segregation for More Students. Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles.

Pettit, B., & Western, B. (2004). Mass imprisonment and the life course: Race and class inequality in U.S. incarceration. American Sociological Review, 69, 151-169.

Roscigno, V. J., Williams, L. M., & Bryon, R. A. (2012). Workplace racial discrimination and middle class vulnerability. American Behavioral Scientist, 56, 696-710.

Sawhill, I., Winship, S., & Grannis, K. (2012). Pathways to the middle class: Balancing personal and public responsibilities. Washington, DC: Brookings.

Smith, J. P., & Welch, F. R. (1977). African American/White Male Earnings and Employment: 1960-70. In Distribution of Economic Well-Being (pp. 233-302). NBER.

Taylor, D. E. (1981). Education, on-the-job training, and the African American-white earnings gap. Monthly Lab. Rev.104, 28.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (2013). Still segregated: How race and poverty stymie the right to education.

Washington, James M. (1991). A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. HarperCollins. Pp. 365–67.

Wolff, Edward N. (2010). Recent trends in household wealth in the United States: Rising debt and the middle-class squeeze-An update to 2007, working paper, Levy Economics Institute, No. 589

U.S.Census of Bureau, Education and Social Stratification Branch, (2013). CPS data on educational attainment:

U.S. Bureau of the Census (1974, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998). Current Population Reports: Income, Poverty, and valuation of Noncash Benefits.

U.S. Bureau of the Census, (2012). Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2012.

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, (2012). ASPE issue brief: Information on poverty and income statistics: A summary of 2012 current population survey data.

U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, (2010). National Vital Statistics Reports (NVSR), Deaths: Preliminary data for 2008, Vol, 59, No.2.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, (2013). Labor force characteristics by race and ethnicity, 2012.

Additional Charts

Source: Historical Statistics of Black America: Agriculture to Labor & Employment. Table 987: Median Family Income 1950-1973. Original source: "Median Income of Families: 1950 to 1974," Current Population Reports, Special Studies, Series P-23, No. 54. The Social and Economic Status of the Black Population in the United States, 1974, 1975, p. 25. Primary source: U.S. Department of Commerce, Social and Economic Statistics Administration Bureau of the Census.
Source: Historical Statistics of Black America: Agriculture to Labor & Employment. Table 987: Median Family Income 1950-1973. Original source: “Median Income of Families: 1950 to 1974,” Current Population Reports, Special Studies, Series P-23, No. 54. The Social and Economic Status of the Black Population in the United States, 1974, 1975, p. 25. Primary source: U.S. Department of Commerce, Social and Economic Statistics Administration Bureau of the Census.
Source: Black Americans: A Statistical Sourcebook, 2000 Edition. Table 7.01: Money income of Households, 1980-1998. Original source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports: Income, Poverty, and valuation of Noncash Benefits: 1994, Series P-60, #189, pp. B-2-Table B-1. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports: Money Income in the United States: 1996
Source: Black Americans: A Statistical Sourcebook, 2000 Edition. Table 7.01: Money income of Households, 1980-1998. Original source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports: Income, Poverty, and valuation of Noncash Benefits: 1994, Series P-60, #189, pp. B-2-Table B-1. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports: Money Income in the United States: 1996
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2012:
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2012:
Source: Following charts are drawn from this resource: Mead, Holly, Cartwright-Smith, Lara, Jones, Karen, Ramos, Christal, Woods, Kristy, & Siegel, Bruce (2008). Racial and ethnic disparities in U.S. health care: A chartbook. The Common Wealth Fund.
Source: Following charts are drawn from this resource: Mead, Holly, Cartwright-Smith, Lara, Jones, Karen, Ramos, Christal, Woods, Kristy, & Siegel, Bruce (2008). Racial and ethnic disparities in U.S. health care: A chartbook. The Common Wealth Fund.
Source: Following charts are drawn from this resource: Mead, Holly, Cartwright-Smith, Lara, Jones, Karen, Ramos, Christal, Woods, Kristy, & Siegel, Bruce (2008). Racial and ethnic disparities in U.S. health care: A chartbook. The Common Wealth Fund.
Source: Following charts are drawn from this resource: Mead, Holly, Cartwright-Smith, Lara, Jones, Karen, Ramos, Christal, Woods, Kristy, & Siegel, Bruce (2008). Racial and ethnic disparities in U.S. health care: A chartbook. The Common Wealth Fund.
Source: Following charts are drawn from this resource: Mead, Holly, Cartwright-Smith, Lara, Jones, Karen, Ramos, Christal, Woods, Kristy, & Siegel, Bruce (2008). Racial and ethnic disparities in U.S. health care: A chartbook. The Common Wealth Fund.
Source: Following charts are drawn from this resource: Mead, Holly, Cartwright-Smith, Lara, Jones, Karen, Ramos, Christal, Woods, Kristy, & Siegel, Bruce (2008). Racial and ethnic disparities in U.S. health care: A chartbook. The Common Wealth Fund.

This is reposted from GirlwPen, where I wrote about several pieces of education and gender research in 2013.

Apples via Creative Commons by Nina Matthews

I have written previously about gender, debt, and college drop out rates–men’s and women’s different debt tolerance (women have more) is related to their early job market prospects (men have more) and helps explain why men drop out of college more.

Now, here’s a new piece of the gender gap in education puzzle. According to a new briefing report (from 2013, now) presented to the Council on Contemporary Families, “the most important predictor of boys’ achievement is the extent to which the school culture expects, values, and rewards academic effort.” Sociologists Claudia Buchmann (Ohio State) and Thomas DiPrete (Columbia University) present their in-depth findings on the much-debated reasons why women outstrip men in education—also the subject of their new book—in “The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What it Means for American Schools.” The full CCF briefing report is available here.

When did the gender gap begin? Some of the gender gap in schooling is new and some is not. For about 100 years, the authors explain, girls have been making better grades than boys. But only since the 1970s have women been catching up to—and surpassing—men in terms of graduation rates from college and graduate school. The authors report, “Back in 1960, more than twice as many men as women between the ages of 26-28 were college graduates. Between 1970 and 2010, men’s rate of B.A. completion grew by just 7 percent, rising from 20 to 27 percent in those 40 years. In contrast, women’s rates almost tripled, rising from 14 percent to 36 percent.”

Is the gender gap translating into wages? “The rise of women in the educational realm has not wiped out the gender wage gap — women with a college degree continue to earn less on average than men with a college degree.”  But because more women are getting college degrees, growing numbers of women are earning more than their less-educated men age-mates, and the gender wage gap has narrowed considerably.” But, report the authors, if men were keeping up with women in terms of education, men would on average be earning four percent more than they do now, and their unemployment rate would be one-half percentage point lower.

What should schools do? The authors debunk the notion that boys’ under-performance in school is caused by a “feminized” learning environment that needs to be made more boy-friendly. Making curriculum, teachers, or classroom more “masculine” is not the answer, they show. In fact, boys do better in school in classrooms that have more girls and that emphasize extracurricular activities such as music and art as well as holding both girls and boys to high academic standards. But boys do need to learn how much today’s economy rewards academic achievement rather than traditionally masculine blue-collar work.

Please visit here to read more about the gender gap in educational achievement and the sources of it.

photo credit: Steve Buissinne via pixabay

The opioid epidemic may be about to get worse. Under the new Republican administration, the Affordable Care Act and other policies to support families are under fire. To understand the impact Republican policy changes could have on the opioid epidemic we sought to learn more from someone who has studied it. Eliza Schultz is a Research Assistant for the Poverty to Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress. One of Eliza’s most recent reports (with Katherine Gallagher Robbins) is How Republican Budget Cuts Would Make the Opioid Epidemic Even Worse. The report takes a more inclusive perspective on the impact of the opioid epidemic by addressing how it affects families and communities. When I spoke with Eliza she expanded on the opioid epidemics connection to family and community, what policymakers should be doing, and the threats to well-being that these Republican policies create.

Q: I know that you do policy research. So how did opioid addiction come up as a topi­­c––and how did you recognize it as a family and community issue (as opposed to a personal one)?

ES: Opioid use has escalated into a full-blown crisis in the United States—more than 30,000 people died from overdoses in 2015, and, in some pockets of the country, particularly rural ones, it’s ushered in mass trauma—so it’s hard to ignore. It’s been covered so widely in the media and on the campaign trail, but what makes this coverage noteworthy is that, for the first time, the consensus is that the epidemic has been spurred by factors outside the control of people struggling with addiction, like economic insecurity.

Historically, drug use has been framed as a personal failure. Take, for example, the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. The reaction was to incarcerate people, which, of course, decimated families and communities, compounding whatever havoc the drugs themselves wreaked. It’s fair to say racism played a huge role in these different responses because now that the face of a drug epidemic is white, the country is more sympathetic. This moment presents an opportunity to understand drug addiction in general—not just the opioid epidemic, and no matter who is most affected—not as a personal failure but as a symptom of larger issues, like the lack of good jobs, and address those root causes.

To me, it’s hard not to recognize substance abuse as an issue that impacts families and communities. A phenomenon like opioid use does not happen in isolation to individuals—it inevitably affects the people around them. Adequate solutions to drug epidemics need to acknowledge and support those families and communities. Mass incarceration did precisely the opposite.

Q: What should policymakers do to address issues raised in your study?

ES: Well, the first key step is to do no harm. Under the American Health Care Act, health care costs will jump to the tune of $1,400 on average, but Americans who face the biggest cost increase—about $5,000 annually—are those ages 55 to 64, the same cohort that has seen the biggest rise in fatal opioid overdoses. We also know that rural communities—which, again, are disproportionately impacted by the opioid epidemic—face severe unmet needs for medical care, with more than 30 million people in counties that have not one licensed provider of medication-assisted drug treatment. The Affordable Care Act has helped to address that gap in services, in part because it incentivizes providers to serve rural counties. Under the current replacement plan, the existence of those 1,300 community health centers—many in rural areas—is threatened. Similarly, we can’t afford to roll back Medicaid expansion, or institute per capita caps, as the replacement bill proposes. All that will do is leave low-income people without insurance, or with significantly worse coverage.

As for a proactive agenda to address opioid addiction, a robust safety net is essential. Dr. Anna Lembke, chief of addiction medicine at Stanford School of Medicine, attributed part of this epidemic to the fact that, in the absence of adequate economic supports, painkillers have become a stop-gap for people with not only physical problems, but also psychological and economic ones.

Q: There’s serious potential for repeal of ACA and elimination of supports for families faced with opioid addiction. What can be done for the foster care system that, as you report, is heavily impacted by opioid addiction?

ES: By way of background, substance abuse now accounts for why about one in three children end up in foster care, and that figure is on the rise, in large part because of the opioid epidemic. State foster care systems have not been able to keep up with the increased demand, forcing states to turn to outside organizations for assistance. While it’s great that a lot of non-profits and religious institutions have stepped up in some parts of the country, reliance on volunteer organizations to plug holes like those in state foster care systems is so far from an adequate long-term solution. These systems need more financial support, but, unfortunately, the primary revenue sources for foster care are under attack. It’s hard to wrap my mind around how an administration can vow to support a population and then threaten to make budget cuts that really just exacerbate the problem at hand.

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

“Peelers” via

There are memes all over the internet proclaiming that men who do housework “get laid” more often. Google “men who do housework,” and you’ll find, “Porn for Women:” a calendar featuring shirtless men doing household chores. What’s so sexy about men doing housework? The underlying message winks at the fact that, in the US, women continue to do the bulk of household labor even though almost as many of them work for pay outside the home as do men. Even after more than a century of feminist movement, most heterosexual households are still organized along gender lines. Heterogendered tradition still valorizes (and separates) male breadwinners and female caregivers. In this context, men who relieve women of housework are seen as rare, exotic, and even “sexy.”

Of course, real housework isn’t sexy at all. Preparing meals, doing laundry, washing dishes, cleaning – these are tasks that never end. Another common internet meme asks, “Don’t you just love those 12 seconds when all the laundry is done?” We noticed that you could create a lively, acerbic Pinterest page just on gender and housework!

So what does it look like when “real men”—men who consider themselves breadwinners and heads of the household—do housework? Why would these men do housework in the first place? They might do it if they became unemployed. We interviewed 40 men who lost their jobs during the recent recession. Most (85%) of these men expressed traditional viewpoints about gender in the home, saying that men should provide for women and children. And yet, after losing work, most (85%) of these men became financially dependent on their wives or girlfriends. This caused an ideological as well as financial quandary for them. Because their beliefs about masculinity were tangled up with employment, they had to redefine manhood while they were unemployed.

So how did these men prove their manhood? They tackled housework, and they crushed it “like men.” Ben, who called himself, “Mr. Housework,” explained that he mopped, vacuumed, and steam cleaned the floors multiple times a week. Richard said, “I won’t even use a mop on a floor, just on my knees and stuff. I find it somewhat cathartic, believe it or not, but I roll the rugs up, the ones in the kitchen, shaking them outside, leaving them [to air] out.” Our subjects embraced housework to do their part in the family, and they redefined women’s work as hard work—work befitting men. As Brian said, “I would prefer to be working but I just have to step up and be a man in a different kind of manner.”

So it apparently takes a recession to blur the division of labor in traditional household. Will this blurriness last as the economy recovers and men go back to work? Maybe. If “heads of households” and “men’s men” see household labor as real work, this could elevate its worth in larger society, making it less surprising and funny when men and women cross gendered boundaries in their homes.

Originally posted 6/3/16

Kristen Myers is Professor of Sociology and Director of Center for the Study of Women, Gender, & Sexuality at Northern Illinois University. Ilana Demantas is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at University of Kansas. They write about their research in detail in “Being ‘The Man’ Without Having a Job And/Or: Providing Care Instead of ‘Bread’”—a chapter in Families as They Really Are.

Photo by Damian Gadal, Flickr CC.

On the 20th anniversary of Welfare Reform, it is worthwhile considering the economic conditions facing today’s low-income individuals and families, and the welfare programs they can utilize for assistance. By many accounts, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)—the nation’s primary welfare program for the poor resulting from Welfare Reform—was unresponsive during the 2001-2003 recession as well as the Great Recession. For families facing instability in today’s job market, cash welfare could provide an income floor during difficult economic times, but for most it does not. Instead, today’s TANF program funds areas including job search, state refundable tax credits, and even marriage promotion activities. Meanwhile, spending on cash assistance has fallen dramatically since 1996—the beginning of the TANF program. Amid these spending changes, my research suggests that socio-economically disadvantaged families differ from the “typical” American family in that their incomes are, on average, not only lower but highly unstable between weeks, months, and years. This “income volatility” tends to rise during recessions, and is attributed to short-term economic shocks such as job loss as well as permanent structural changes throughout the economy (e.g. the decline of blue-collar manufacturing jobs) and the emergence of part-time and contingent work arrangements.

TANF could do more to provide a basic income floor for families with low and fluctuating income.

For such families, there is often no adequate substitute for cash assistance to pay bills—near-cash programs providing important food and housing assistance will not buy a coat, bus fare, or emergency auto repairs. Other programs providing cash are, while effective on some grounds, ill-equipped to serve as an income buffer for America’s poor families. For example, many policymakers agree that the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) lowers poverty, providing large cash refunds subsidizing earnings for the working poor during tax season. That said, the EITC is not designed to address the needs of the jobless poor. Collectively, this is less of an indictment of the EITC, food stamps (SNAP), and housing assistance, but instead an acknowledgement that TANF could do more to provide a basic income floor for families in need—families with low and fluctuating income throughout the year.

I close with three points as we consider the 20th anniversary of Welfare Reform:

  1. First, my work confirms that the poorest families generally face the highest income volatility over the past 30 years. While TANF could perform better, the full set of transfer programs aid low-income families by reducing poverty and income volatility. Still, today’s poor families receive far less direct cash assistance than in 1996.
  2. Second, many poor families have limited credit market access and savings. In the absence of TANF, many low-wage workers and their families also lack access to savings and face limited access to loanable funds. Such families may be denied loans or credit cards that allow households to absorb a drop in earnings—perhaps the first solution many households pursue when faced with an unanticipated expense or income shortfall. Whether due to displacement from employment altogether or unpredictable hours, credit and loan denials can lead to far costlier alternatives such as payday lenders. Such financial streams provide financial assistance for low-income families facing liquidity constraints, but they do so at interest rates that can exceed 100 percent and cause longer-term damage to borrowers.
  3. TANF reform resulted in a weakened cash-based safety net. Low-income workers with children face higher income volatility on average and are less likely to have affordable access to credit markets. These families are underserved by TANF in that they generally receive little if any cash assistance today. The evidence suggests that Welfare Reform and the resulting TANF program likely reduced the effectiveness of the safety net to insure and buffer families from negative economic shocks. The reform occurred amid a strong economic expansion, and today’s program should reflect new realities—namely by providing greater cash benefits and support for those who wish to gain additional skills and training within a riskier labor market.

Originally posted 9/27/16


Hardy, B. (2016). “Income Instability and the Response of the Safety Net.” Contemporary Economic Policy doi:10.1111/coep.12187.

Hardy, B., and J.P. Ziliak. (2014). “Decomposing Trends in Income Volatility: The ‘Wild Ride’ at the Top and Bottom.” Economic Inquiry 52(1): 459-476.

Bradley Hardy is a professor of public administration and policy at American University. For more information, Dr. Hardy can be contacted at

Years ago, the Council on Contemporary Families (CCF) gave the United States a “Gentleman’s C” in terms of family policy, and not much has changed since then. CCF scholars have used the international variation in work-family policy to look at how families are doing – inside and outside of the United States. For International Women’s Day, here is a review of CCF research using international populations and the international media that reported on the research.

Supportive work-family policies foster women’s entrepreneurship

UC-Santa Barbara sociologist Sarah Thébaud’s investigation into “What Helps Women Entrepreneurs Flourish?” found that women in countries with more generous work-family policies like subsidized childcare and paid parental leave have more successful entrepreneurial endeavors: they “employ more workers, express more ambitious growth intentions, and are more likely to report introducing a brand new product or service to the market” than in countries without such benefits. There are higher numbers of women entrepreneurs in countries without progressive work-family policies, like the United States, but they don’t really succeed like those in the more generous countries. Their lack of success led Thébaud to conclude that these were cases of entrepreneurship as a “fallback” option in situations where balancing work and family was not possible otherwise.

Supportive work-family policies help men and women split up housework and childcare:

Economist Ankita Patnaik reports in “’Daddy’s Home!’ Increasing Men’s Use of Paternity Leave,” that in Quebec, after the implementation of a new non-transferrable, paid five-week paternity leave policy that paid parents seventy percent of their income (Quebec Parental Insurance Plan), fathers were more likely to take advantage of paternity leave than were fathers in Quebec before the policy implementation in 2006 or in provinces without the new policy. Eighty percent of fathers eligible for the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan utilized it, compared to less than twenty percent of those taking advantage of the previous policy, which paid fifty-five percent of income and was transferrable from fathers to mothers. After participants’ paid paternity leave had finished, participating fathers and mothers had a more egalitarian division of household and market labor than couples in which the father did not take the paid paternity leave. This research was profiled to Canadian readers in the National Post, and to Sri Lankan readers in Viva Lanka.

Patnaik’s encouraging finding is important, because in the United States – where paid paternity leave is not guaranteed—parents tend to revert to “traditional” family roles after the birth of a child. Arielle Kuperberg’s research, outlined in the CCF brief “First comes love, then comes…housework?” was profiled in the Australian edition of the International Business Times. Kuperberg, a sociologist at UNC-Greensboro, reported that it was not the transition to marriage, but the transition to parenting that increased gender inequality in household labor among couples.

Balancing market and non-market work leads to happier couples and families:

What are the implications of policies that allow parents to share work and family obligations? Well, for one, couples who share housework have more sex, and couples who share childcare have better sex, according to Cornell’s Sharon Sassler in her CCF brief, “A reversal in Predictors of Frequency and Satisfaction in Marriage.” This report was covered by The Daily Mail in the U.K., The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia, and Edizione Italiana in Italy, among others.

More broadly, variation in work-family policy accounts for the “happiness gap” between parents and non-parents. Jennifer Glass (UT-Austin), Robin Simon (Wake Forest University), and Matthew Andersson (Baylor University), in “Parenting Happiness in 22 Countries,” review that in the United States, where work-family policies are lacking, the happiness gap is wide – parents tend not to be as happy as non-parents. But in countries with “good parental policy ‘packages,’” made up of paid parental leave, guaranteed time off, affordable childcare, and “work schedule flexibility,” the differences are less stark. In Norway and Hungary, where there are generous parental policy packages, parents are even happier than non-parents. In addition to many English language articles around the world, this report was covered in a Spanish-language article entitled ““La paternidad y la infelicidad” at Proexpanción, and in “Un buon welfare può rendere felici i genitori,” in the Italian news outlet Internazionale.

Braxton Jones is a graduate student in sociology at the University of New Hampshire, and serves as a CCF Graduate Research and Public Affairs Scholar.

Re-posted from Urban Wire

photo credit: Alicia Campbell via pixabay

Worldwide, only about one in two women work, compared with three in four men. In some low-income countries, such as Zimbabwe and Madagascar, the labor force participation rate for women has reached 90 percent, but these women are often underemployed. Hard economic circumstances often force them to be self-employed or work in small enterprises that are unregulated and unregistered.

About 83 percent of all domestic workers in the world are women, most of whom work in precarious conditions. Women also do much more unpaid work than men, including caring for children, the elderly, and people with disabilities; contributing to family farms or businesses; and performing household chores such as collecting water or gathering firewood. Improving women’s livelihoods constitutes basic human rights protection.

But could including more women in the labor force also stimulate economic growth, enhance business competitiveness, and improve well-being?

We recently conducted a review of evidence to answer that question and found that reducing the gender pay gap and equalizing access to economic opportunities and resources are good for economic, social, and business development. For example, some firms that purposefully reduced gender discrimination and supported family-friendly policies attracted more talented workers, improved retention rates, and decreased employee stress, resulting in enhanced productivity.

But women face significant barriers to improving their lives, such as fear of victimization and violence, lack of child care, and legal and informal discrimination. Removing those barriers could help draw women into higher-productivity sectors and improve family, community, and national prosperity.

We found evidence that broad-based and gender-specific policies can enable women’s economic empowerment; that is, improving women’s ability to make decisions and affect outcomes important to themselves and their families. Here are six of those policies.Broad-based policies

Broad-based policies

  • Promote economic growth: In countries experiencing rapid economic growth, increasing demand for labor and the availability of better-paying jobs ensures that women’s economic empowerment does not become a zero-sum game between men and women. When the economy demands more workers, women will not replace men if more women participate in the labor market.
  • Invest in public services, infrastructure, and women-friendly public spaces and transportation: The quality of and access to public services, including basic utilities such as water and sanitation, improves all-around well-being through greater economic productivity and growth, but may be especially beneficial for women. For example, because women do most household work, electricity and tap water can free up their time, enabling greater labor market participation. Access to speedy and reliable transportation can reduce safety concerns that discourage women from entering the labor force or limit them to working at home.
  • Promote innovation and technology: Information and communications technology can help increase women’s inclusion in the economy, particularly in high-productivity service sectors. Greater access to information and technology can also stimulate changes in social norms and attitudes toward women’s roles in society, potentially improving access to education and political involvement.

Gender-specific policies

  • Provide child care: Evidence suggests that the availability of child care is strongly associated with an increase in women’s labor force participation and productivity. Child care, particularly high-quality child care, is one of the most important enablers of women’s economic empowerment and can have a positive impact on children’s learning.
  • Change laws that limit women’s economic independence: Reforming inheritance and family law to lift prohibitions on daughters’ legacies and to reduce husbands’ power over wives’ economic activity can have positive economic effects, going beyond the specific outcomes they are intended to address.
  • Improve or reduce work in the informal sector: Women are concentrated in the informal sector, which includes jobs that are unregulated and insecure, like street vending. Policies designed to move workers from the informal sector to the formal sector can significantly benefit women. Working in the formal economy is more likely to empower women because it is associated with more control over their own incomes than they would have in informal work. Evidence suggests that strengthening the collective bargaining capacity of women workers in this sector and improving awareness of women’s rights is important to ensuring that income levels and working conditions improve in the formal economy.

Enacting these policies will not only empower women, but will also benefit their families and communities. The United Nations’ recently formed High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment will bring needed attention to these issues and, we hope, begin to bring about needed change.

Originally posted 11/14/16

Elizabeth H. Peters is a Council on Contemporary Families Board Member, Director of the Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population at the Urban Institute, and coeditor of the book Marriage and Family: Perspectives and Complexities

If 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 Fremstadis 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 StrongerRobbins 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.

Originally posted 1/2/17

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

I attended my first healthy marriage education class with Christine and Bill, a white middle-class married couple studying to become marriage educators for their church. The first relationship skill we learned during our Mastering the Mysteries of Love training was the “showing understanding” skill focused on taking a partner’s perspective. Standing back-to-back, our instructor led us through an exercise during which Christine and Bill alternated describing what they saw in the classroom. Christine described the classroom white board. Bill described the other participants, tables, and chairs. “Is Christine wrong,” the instructor asked Bill, “because she sees the world differently than you? Now turn around. What do you see, Bill?” “I see what Christine saw,” he eagerly replied. This exercise was intended to teach us that learning to see things from our partner’s perspective was an important relationship skill that could revolutionize our love lives and improve our chances of having a happy, lifelong marriage. Bill later reported that developing this skill helped him understand Christine better and that he was falling in love with her all over again after decades of marriage.

Two years later, I observed another healthy marriage class, this one for low-income, unmarried parents. There that day were Cody and Mindy, both 18 and white, who were struggling to make ends meet while raising their eight-month-old daughter and living in a studio apartment on money Cody made through his minimum-wage construction job. The communication lesson taught in this class—daily check-ins with one’s partner to understand their feelings and concerns—was similar to the one I learned in that first class with Christine and Bill. However, when Cody, Mindy, and I returned to class the following week, Cody shared that he found it difficult to practice what they’d learned. He and Mindy shared the studio apartment with several other people, making it hard to speak privately, and often fought about how they would spend their last few dollars—bus money or formula for the baby—until Cody’s next payday.

Focused on similar lessons about love in the context of widely varying social and economic circumstances, both classes had as their major goal the promotion of healthy marriage. Government funding for classes like these was first approved by Congress in 1996 when it overhauled U.S. welfare policy to promote work, marriage, and responsible fatherhood for families living in poverty. This led to the creation of the federal Healthy Marriage Initiative—often referred to as marriage promotion policy—which has spent almost $1 billion since 2002 to fund hundreds of relationship and marriage education programs across the country like the ones I attended with Christine, Bill, Cody, and Mindy. For three years, I observed over 500 hours of healthy marriage classes, analyzed 20 government-approved marriage education curricula, interviewed 15 staff who ran healthy marriage programs, and interviewed 45 low-income parents who took classes to answer the following questions: What does the implementation of healthy marriage policy reveal about political understandings of how romantic experiences, relationship behaviors, and marital choices are primary mechanisms of inequality? And, ultimately, what are the social and policy implications of healthy marriage education, especially for families living—and loving—in poverty?

My new book, Proposing Prosperity: Marriage Education Policy and Inequality in America, takes the reader inside the marriage education classroom to show how healthy marriage policy promotes the idea that preventing poverty depends on individuals’ abilities to learn about what I call skilled love. This is a romantic paradigm that assumes individuals can learn to love in line with long-term marital commitment by developing rational romantic values, emotional competencies, and interpersonal habits. By studying the on-the-ground implementation of healthy marriage policy, including training as a marriage educator for 18 government-approved curricula, I found that healthy marriage policy promotes skilled love as a strategy for preventing risky and financially costly relationship choices and, consequently, as the essential link between marriage and financial stability. Central to this message is the assumption that upward economic mobility is teachable and that romantic competence and well-informed intimate choices can help disadvantaged couples, such as Cody and Mindy, overcome financial constraints.

Healthy marriage policy assumes that developing relationship skills creates better marriages, which in turn lead to financial prosperity. However, the low-income couples I interviewed believed that marriage represents the culmination of prosperity, not a means to attain it. In the book, I describe how cultural and economic changes in marriage throughout the twentieth century have created a middle-class marriage culture in which low-income couples are less likely to marry for both ideological and financial reasons. Couples told me they could neither afford nor prioritize marriage until they were more financially stable. Their relationship stories illustrate how financial challenges lead to curtailed commitments, especially when marriage between two economically unstable partners seems like a financial risk. Marriage educators responded to this by deliberately avoiding talk of marriage and instead emphasizing committed co-parenting as the primary resource parents have to support their children.

Though parents frequently challenged instructors’ claims that marriage could directly help them, their children, and their finances, parents did find the classes useful. While low-income couples’ economic challenges made it hard to practice the skills, participants experienced the classes as a rare opportunity to communicate free of the material constraints that shaped their daily lives and romantic relationships. Hearing other low-income couples talk about their challenges with love and money normalized parents’ intimate struggles and allowed them to better understand how relationship conflict and unfulfilled hopes for marriage are shaped by poverty. This finding suggests that publicly sponsored relationship education could be a valuable social service in a highly unequal society where stable, happy marriages are increasingly becoming a privilege of the most advantaged couples.

Yet, low-income parents’ experiences with healthy marriage classes point to how relationship policies would likely be more useful if they focused more on how economic stressors take an emotional toll on romantic relationships and less on promoting the dubious message that marriage directly benefits poor families. I also show how the focus of healthy marriage programs on relationship skills obscures the insidious effects of institutionalized inequalities—specifically those related to class, gender, race, and sexual orientation—on romantic and economic opportunity. “Skills” were often an ideological cover for normative understandings of intimate life that privilege the two-parent, heterosexually married family. Marriage educators presented a selective interpretation of research that deceptively characterizes the social and economic benefits of marriage as a unidirectional causal relationship without accounting for how selection and discrimination shape the connection between marriage and economic prosperity.

What can policymakers learn from the experiences of low-income couples who took healthy marriage classes? Broader, sociologically informed relationship policies would recognize the benefits and costs of marriage and teach under what specific social and economic conditions marriage is typically beneficial. Any policy with the goal of promoting family stability and equality must contend with the intimate inequalities that lead to curtailed commitments. Programs that link economic prosperity with marriage will likely only reinforce couples’ tendencies to make marital decisions based on middle-class ideas of marriageability. The most effective policy approach to strengthening relationships and families will not be grounded in expectations of individual self-sufficiency and strategies—or skills—for interpersonal negotiation and understanding. Instead, it will reflect how love and commitment thrive most within the context of social and economic opportunity and equal recognition and support for all families as they really are, married and unmarried alike.

Originally posted 12/27/16

Jennifer M. Randles is author of Proposing Prosperity: Marriage Education Policy and Inequality in America (Columbia University Press, Publication Date: December 27, 2016). She is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at California State University, Fresno. Her research explores how inequalities affect American family life and how policies address family-formation trends.