3Q

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Underrepresented groups are often silenced, oppressed, ostracized, and neglected. Suppression can happen overtly–but it gets reproduced and extended even in sociological research. I don’t think this is happening on purpose. We don’t collect the data, so how can we learn more about them? When thinking about underrepresented groups, race is a big topic. A variety of races are underrepresented, yet we must also acknowledge different genders that are swept under the rug. To wit: there is a troubling lack of research about transgender individuals: Who are they? Where are they? What affects this community and their strategies towards living happy, healthy lives, safe from violence and cruelty?

To learn more, I interviewed Xavier Guadalupe-Diaz, an assistant professor of sociology at Framingham State University. His research focuses on intimate partner violence (IPV) within LGBTQ+ communities. He sheds light on the nature and extent of harmful effects IPV has on the transgender community and shares the resources that are provided:

TC:  What made you focus your research on intimate partner violence? Specifically, what made you focus on transgender intimate partner violence?

XGD:  After a few years of researching same-gender (lesbian, gay, bisexual) IPV as a graduate student, it became very clear to me that transgender experiences were almost completely absent from the available literature. It’s common to see the absence of transgender samples listed as a limitation or a call for future research – even in some of my own studies, I typically did not garner enough transgender respondents to make any claims about their IPV victimization. Given that gender is so central to how we understand and study IPV, the absence of the trans lived realities made some of the theories seem incomplete to me. I wanted to not only reach transgender samples but also to complicate the ways in which we think about gender and other identities as they relate to IPV.

TC: Even though transgender people have been part of society for quite some time, why do you think there is little research focused on transgender individuals and their involvement in IPV?

XGD:  Unfortunately, the reality is that our culture is predominately cisgenderist and transphobic in how we construct, do, and think about gender. Partly because we have made the explicit (and erroneous) assumption that links physical sex with gender identity, trans experiences are often erased. We assume that physical sex automatically denotes social identities and gender expressions (masculine, feminine). We know this is not an accurate reflection of how gender has always been experienced – gender is much more socially informed, individually performed, and meanings and categories have changed throughout time and space. Early IPV research was predominately focused on ciswomen and heteronormative perspectives. While they made many important critiques on how patriarchal culture fosters violence against women, they largely failed to incorporate a non-binary way of thinking through gender.

TC: What differences between cis-gender IPV and transgender IPV have you found? Has race played a part in these differences?

XGD: The transgender IPV literature is very scarce compared to the available knowledge on cisgender victimization; as a result, all of the differences are not entirely known. Some key differences focus on trans vulnerability to abuse in a cisgenderist culture, the tactics of abuse, and the high rates of self-reported victimization. Our broader cisgenderist culture makes IPV a more common reality for transgender people. A hostile society often make trans people more susceptible to abuse by intimate partners. This happens in a number of ways. abusers can manipulate trans identities in ways that don’t happen for cisgender people: undermining gender transition or making trans people feel undesirable, often citing the hostile world around them as reason for them to just put up with the abuse. Especially for transgender people who are early in transition, identity can be a major site of emotional and psychological exploitation. What’s worse is that many of our help-seeking avenues (i.e. shelters) are structured largely around a cisgender experience with rigidly gendered or gender-segregated spaces. Race, ethnicity, and other identities certainly intersect with gender-and they matter.

We don’t yet know the racial differences across transgender IPV, but some points of interest look at how race complicates structural access to resources and how some immigration statuses may prevent trans victims from getting the help they need and deserve. Just last year, a Latinx transgender woman was arrested by ICE in court while attempting to secure a restraining order against her abusive partner. While its only speculated, the abuser is believed to have made the call to officials. This is especially problematic because victims of IPV have protections regardless of citizenship status.

Bonus/Extra! TC: What are the resources provided for transgender individuals and have those resources recently grown?

XGD: FORGE is a national organization that provides services to trans and gender non-conforming and The Network/La Red also operates 24/7 hotlines (617-742-4911 (voice) • 617-227-4911 (TTY) • 800-832-1901 (Toll-Free) and also provide connections to services for LGBTQ survivors. Similarly, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects (NCAVP) also operates a hotline (212) 714-1141 in addition to resources, information, research, and more for the LGBTQ community. The National Center for Transgender Equality has a page dedicated to listing the rights transgender victims of IPV have when accessing legal and social services help. https://transequality.org/know-your-rights/survivors-violence

So, here we are. We are fully aware this community exists and they have real problems like all real people do. As Dr. Guadalupe-Diaz stated, transgender experiences are absent from most of the literature and dismissed from conversations. This has left us unfamiliar with people who we see in our everyday lives. With the lack of discussion, this has wiped out the experiences of an entire part of our society. These are our co-workers, our peers, our educators, and so many more established people within each and every community. It is time to shift the focus from cisgender individuals and realize we must also include this population in our research, in our community, and in our lives. If IPV does not discriminate, our research and resources should not either.

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

Picture via Loyola University Chicago

To improve the well-being of families in urban communities, it is important to understand how violence exposure can have an effect on the development of youth. Dr. Noni Gaylord-Harden is valuable for understanding community violence as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue. Dr. Noni Gaylord-Harden is clinical psychologist and an associate professor of Psychology at the Loyola University of Chicago. She is also a Council on Contemporary Families expert—and board member. Her current research focuses on community violence exposure in African American youth. I recently asked her several questions about her research and perspective on it.

EO: How did you become interested in the mental health of African American youth and families?

NGH: There were a number of seemingly unrelated factors that occurred around the same time to generate my interest in the mental health of African American youth and families. In one of my courses in graduate school, we discussed the impact of stressful life events on psychosocial development in children, and one study that we discussed found that, for each additional stressor experienced by a child, the likelihood of negative psychosocial outcomes increased exponentially. At the same time, I was working as a graduate research assistant on an intervention to reduce aggressive behaviors and increase prosocial behaviors in children, and the project was being implemented in one of the most impoverished school districts in the area. Through this experience, I witnessed how societal inequalities resulted in limited resources and opportunities for success for African American children and families, and I was struck by the number of stressors experienced by the children in the intervention.

Each day, I left the intervention sites thinking about the research study we discussed in class, and wondering how to enhance the well-being of African American youth exposed to disproportionate levels of stressors. Around this time, child coping was emerging as a research area and gaining a great deal of momentum in clinical and developmental psychology. Starting with my dissertation, I began to pursue a program of research on stress and coping in African American youth. I began to conduct research to better understand the impact of stressful life events on psychological functioning in African American youth, how adaptive coping behaviors may buffer the negative impact of stressors, and how African American parents support or enhance adaptive coping in their children.

EO: Your research focuses on community violence exposure as a stressor for African American youth and families in urban communities. What is the impact of community violence exposure on the well-being of African American youth and families? What helps to minimize the negative impact of violence exposure?

NGH: My early work on stress and coping focused on African American youth’s experience of stressors in multiple domains, including peer stressors, family stressors, school stressors, community stressors, etc. Due to attention on violent crime in Chicago, our more recent work hones in on community violence exposure as a stressor. We are learning that, in comparison to other stressors, community violence is unique in regard to both its impact on well-being and the factors that buffer its impact. Our work demonstrates that higher levels of community violence exposure predict higher levels of aggression, delinquency, and post-traumatic stress symptoms, in African American male adolescents, similar to other stressors.

However, we were surprised to find that the association between violence exposure and depression is curvilinear in a number of our studies. This finding means that as the level of community violence exposure increases, levels of depression increase to a point, and then depression begins to decrease as even as community violence continues to increase. This pattern suggests that youth may become emotionally desensitized or emotionally numb to community violence exposure as levels increase. At the same time, these youth are experiencing more trauma symptoms, such as hyperarousal, as violence levels increase. Further, we found that both emotional numbing and hyperarousal mediate the association between violence exposure in early adolescence and aggressive and delinquent behavior in late adolescence in African American males.

We were also surprised to find that coping strategies that were helpful for others forms of stress were not helpful for community violence exposure. Instead, our work has shown that the one coping strategy typically regarded as maladaptive, avoidant coping, is helpful in reducing negative outcomes for African American youth exposed to violence. Finally, we found that parental support does not impact on how youth cope with violence, which is inconsistent with our findings for other stressors. Interestingly, another factor—positive future orientation—has emerged as a stronger and more consistent protective factor that coping. Positive future orientation means that youth are optimistic about their future and expect to achieve their goals. Our findings with African American high school students suggest that positive future orientation buffers the impact of violence exposure on delinquent behavior. We believe that future orientation holds promise as a malleable target for intervention efforts with youth exposed to community violence. We are now interested in exploring how parental behavior may influence youth’s future orientation. We believe that future orientation may be more easily influenced by parents than youth’s coping behaviors, and if we can demonstrate this, we can endorse future orientation as a target in family-based interventions for youth exposed to violence.

EO: In order to better the well-being of African American youth and families exposed to community violence, what are some policies or conditions that contribute to making matters worse for them? In other words, what just isn’t working? What are policies or conditions that are needed to make things better?

NGH: Of course, the most effective policies would be those designed to reduce violent crime, thereby minimizing opportunities for youth to be exposed to violence in the first place. Policies that focus on economic investment in under-resourced communities to improve school conditions, create high quality mixed income housing, and provide job opportunities and workforce development will likely help to reduce violence.

In the meantime, we believe that treating community violence as a criminal justice issue is ineffective. Due to the traumatic nature of violence, community violence exposure is a health issue and should be treated as such. Our work shows that youth who have been exposed to community violence are at higher risk for additional exposure, as well as perpetration of violence. We have also demonstrated that symptoms of PTSD and emotional numbing help to explain this risk. Thus, rather that responding to youth’s behavior in punitive ways, which may further traumatize them, policies should work to ensure that systems and programs in the lives of young people are trauma-informed and trauma-responsive. We believe that reducing symptoms of hyperarousal, hypervigilance, and emotional numbing in youth exposed to violence can help to reduce the risk of subsequent exposure and perpetration and enhance well-being.

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

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Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) has protected many young undocumented immigrants from deportation. This program has been highlighted in the media and has been discussed nationwide – why? Because President Donald Trump has determined to remove it. Although this decision impacts immigrants individually, we also want to focus on immigrant families. I had the opportunity of interviewing Luis H. Zayas, Dean of the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin, regarding the impact of the removal of DACA on immigrant families. Zayas’ research focuses on Hispanic families and children. This is what he had to say about the DACA decision:

TC: On September 5, President Donald Trump announced he was ending DACA in six months—that means March 5, 2018. Perhaps Congress will legislate for DACA, perhaps not; but there is much uncertainty that accompanies this process, and it seems like it creates an added hostile environment for many. What impact do you see this having on immigrant families?

LZ: I see this having a significant impact on immigrant families. I mean, we are talking about the ruptures that could happen in countless families if DACA is not extended. We are talking about kids who are Americans, for all intents and purposes, and who will be subject to deportation. That’s simply going to be a very painful thing for many people.  And it will cut across generations because some young adults with DACA status are the parents of U.S. citizen-children.  What will become of those Americans?  It also will be hard for the government to enact a policy of deporting due to the very fact that that it means deporting and displacing millions of children, millions of parents, and families.  Logistically, that will be virtually impossible.  If this Administration has to round up the hundreds of thousands of DACA youth and millions of their undocumented parents and siblings, it will have to create detention centers and processes.  It will be a nightmare for the undocumented, for government officials, and for taxpayers.

TC: I know you study depression and Latinx teens. Can you tell us more about how the threat to DACA is affecting teenagers — especially Latinx teenagers?

LZ: I haven’t studied [DACA teens] directly so I don’t have data.  But I have spoken to DACA youth and I know it’s been very difficult for them, and students here [in Texas] and across the country are really feeling betrayed: First, they trusted the government by signing up for DACA. Now they’re feeling that the information they gave can be used against them. They’re promised one thing, and this President is taking it away from them. There is a real sense of instability, but I haven’t been able to speak to enough of them directly to be able to make an informed judgement about their situation or their mental/ psychological condition. But I can tell you that the psychological and emotional harm inflicted on their siblings who are citizen-children is almost bottomless, and it is immoral

TC:  How can people/groups/organizations help?

LZ:  I think each of us has to be able to help in our own way. In other words, we can’t do it all. One person just cannot do it all. There are people who are clinicians and practitioners who can help advocate for their clients. They can teach DACA clients how to advocate for themselves and they can use their experiences with clients to show the harm that can be done. If we collect as much as is possible and bring it together, we’ll make a difference. Those same clinicians can write to newspapers and contact their representative in Congress and apply pressure and say, “Look I treat these DACA youth and I’m serving these kids and their families and this is what you’re doing to them.”

University officials have been doing a lot to protect DACA students and so they too can continue to do that and talk to people who represent [their university]. Big institutions will have an impact on the thinking of Congressional representatives in their area both at the state level and at the federal level. In addition, there are those of us who do research–we can speak up and I think researchers have to have the capacity to translate their research into information that can be understood by the general public. It can’t be all of the scientific jargon. One has to break down the information so that way it is understandable to the average person, the average Member of Congress, the legislative aide, and people like that. It is really about what each of us do, and if each of us does something, I think we can really get this administration to back down from the stance that they have taken. And I think it’s beginning to show that people from both parties– Republicans and Democrats–want to protect DACA. I think that’s a good sign.  There are 17 state attorneys general suing the Administration to prevent it from rescinding DACA.  They need our support.

The removal of DACA is a call to step up. We may believe that we are unable to help when the government is the one enacting the policy, but we all have a voice. We are capable of advocating for those who are being deported—these are our peers, our classmates, and our friends. The elimination of this program is a very painful thing but it is painless to stick up for the people who are having their rights taken away from them. The families who are hurting from this deserve the support from a country in which they have spent their time building their lives, building families, and building homes.

Tasia Clemons is a Senior Sociology major at Framingham State University, an Administrative Resident Assistant, and a CCF Public Affairs Intern.

 

Originally posted 6/20/2017

The term “millennial,” according to Frank Furstenberg, is an overly simplistic blanket term frequently used to describe the generation born anywhere between 1980 and 2004. This leads to confusion when we see debates in the media about where millennials fall on either side of the conservative or liberal binary, even when research shows significant complexity in millennial attitudes and behaviors. This month, I asked Barbara Risman, Professor of Sociology at University of Illinois at Chicago and President of the Board for the Council on Contemporary Families, about new research for her forthcoming book Where Will the Millennials Take Us: Transforming the Gender Structure? The research is in Social Currents. Risman’s findings suggest that as gender itself challenges binaries, so do millennials’ negotiations with the gender structure. Rather than a clear-cut conclusion about “millennial” approaches to gender, Risman finds four unique typologies that situate millennials within the gender structure: the true believers, innovators, rebels, and straddlers.

Q: In your typology, I was intrigued by the gender rebels: This is the millennial group that seems most different from previous generations. They emerged in your investigation when you demarcated material and cultural dimensions of the gender structure. Can you tell us more about how you came to recognize the gender rebels?

BR: I agree with your assessment that these gender rebels are perhaps the one group in my research that appear to be an invention of the millennial generation. Gender rebels are very much like a group I call the innovators; both could be described as trying to walk the walk of feminism, even if feminism is so in the air they breathe, they sometimes do not use the word. At the individual level of analysis, both groups reject being constrained to stereotypically feminine or masculine personality traits, both reject the cultural expectations that men and women should live different kinds of lives, and both are ideologically opposed to gender inequality. They are very similar in their cultural rejection of gender at the individual, interactional and macro ideological levels.

But when it came to the material aspects of gender, not ideas, but bodies and the class between their bodily presentations and the organization of social life, rebels and innovators couldn’t have been more different. The rebels rejected the notion that just because they were born female (or in one case, male) that meant they should present their bodies as feminine (or in one case, masculine). These rebels rejected the material expression of gender with their bodies. At the individual level they were androgynous, or if female, they presented their bodies in ways traditionally associated with masculinity. This had repercussions for how people treated them, with gender policing especially dramatic for men who challenged gender norms, but also for women who challenged how they presented their bodies once they reached puberty. At the macro level of organizational design, anyone who falls between the binary of male and female faces constant oppression as they do not fit within standard social categories. As you suggest, my distinction between cultural and material dimensions of the gender structure helps us to understand why the experiences of rebels are so different from those of innovators.   

Q: What do you see as the practical/policy implications of your findings about the complexity of millennial gender typologies for the advancement of gender equality?

BR: There was one response that didn’t differ across groups. It didn’t matter if someone was a true believer in essential gender differences or a rebel, everyone, male or female, or somewhere in between, expected to work throughout their lives. That has great policy implications. We need to change our workplace policies to reflect the reality that all people in this generation expect to work in the paid labor force, and thus, workplaces have to be re-designed to be more family friendly. In this and no doubt future generations, employed adults will also be caretakers of young children, sick relatives and aging parents. We must use social policy to re-design the world of paid work to make this possible. Every society needs both economic activity and caretaking, and if the same people do both, social organizations have to reflect that reality.

A second policy implication reflects the needs of the rebels. Now that we have people who refuse the label of man or woman, and gender categories themselves are under siege by at least a small group of millennials, we have to begin to allow for gender variation in our social world. If there are people who are neither women nor men, then we need bathrooms that anyone can use. One policy implication is to move beyond single-sex bathrooms. Why not continue to require all stalls to have doors, and perhaps add curtains for urinals, and allow everyone to use every bathroom, and wash their hands next to people who are their same sex and those who are not? Why gender products? Why do we need different colored razors for men and women? At the end of my book, I call for a fourth wave of feminism that seeks to eradicate not just sexism but the gender structure itself. Only then will people who are constrained by gender, all of us, will be free.

Q: Your qualitative research makes a strong argument for the heterogeneity of millennials’ relations to the gender structure. That heterogeneity is very important to understanding things as they are, but sometimes in media the message gets lost. What advice do you have for researchers communicating nuanced findings to public audiences, when many in popular media depict millennials as falling on one side of a progressive/not progressive dichotomy?

BR: This is a problem for both qualitative and quantitative researchers. For qualitative research, I suggest creating catchy names for groups that differ, and insisting that the range of responses be covered. For quantitative researchers, I think a suggestion often given by Stephanie Coontz is right on target, and that is to discuss both means and standard deviations, especially when there is great variation around the average, and so people are really having different experiences.

Braxton Jones earned his MA in Sociology at the University of New Hampshire; he is currently in the doctoral program in sociology at Boston University and serves as a CCF Graduate Research and Public Affairs Scholar.

Recently I interviewed Sociologist Alicia Walker, whose book The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife: Power, Pragmatism, and Pleasure in Women’s Infidelity (Lexington Books) will be released on November 15, 2017. She is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Missouri State University. In her book, she reports on the results of interviews with 46 heterosexual married or partnered women who used the website Ashley Madison to intentionally seek out and form affairs with other men. The book develops a sociology of infidelity, examining issues related to the meaning of marriage, power, social norms in affairs, and why women have them.

AK: You found that the women in your book often had affairs because they were trying to preserve their marriage. How could an affair help preserve a marriage?

AW: For the women of the study, these outside partnerships served as a release valve for the resentment, hurt feelings, and deprivation they experienced in their primary partnerships (marriages, or pre-existing long-term relationships). The women talked about being able to better to overlook the challenges in their relationships, as well as the daily irritants of shared living quarters because they had this secret source of pleasure in their lives. Additionally, for women whose primary partnerships were sexless and/or orgasmless, these outside partnerships function as a space of sexual freedom and sexual pleasure, which is sorely missing in their “real lives.” These women reported that without the relief these outside partnerships provide, they would be forced to exit their primary partnerships. For most of the women I interviewed, remaining in their primary partnerships was a chief goal. Thus, the relief provided by these outside partnerships proved crucial for these women to stay in primary partnerships, where their own sexual pleasure and needs were not being addressed.

AK: One of the things I find fascinating about the book is how social norms (informal social rules) are completely upended in affairs compared to other romantic or sexual relationships. Women avoided forming emotional ties with their partners, and were not seeking to form long-term romantic partnerships, which counteracts narratives we normally hear about gender and relationships. What were some of the ways you found the norms about affairs differ from other relationships?

AW: What is really fascinating about these outside partnerships is that there are no established expectations for how the women are supposed to behave. As a result, women could step out of typical expectations of gender around dating and sex. Even in traditional online dating, we take those expectations with us online. Without established norms and procedures, the participants in these outside partnerships make them up as they go along.

The women of this sample reported an extensive vetting process designed to protect themselves–and their families by extension–and to find a suitable partner without wasting a lot of time and energy. The amount of care and calculation applied stood out as different from partnering initiated face-to-face, where we often walk blindly into relationships under the magical influence of chemistry.

The freedom the women felt to set boundaries struck me as interesting as well. Frank discussions of preferred sexual acts, stamina, and scheduling take place as soon as the initial exchange. If those details do not match up, the conversation does not continue. There is none of the “oh, we have so much in common, I should overlook the other stuff” because these women don’t get that far with men who don’t fill the bill. The women had the freedom to create outside partnerships where the sole focus was their own pleasure. That’s very different than the other relationships in their lives. Overall, the amount of power and freedom the women exercise in their outside partnerships is much more than what we often see them employ in their marriages.

AK:  Your sample – women who used Ashley Madison – allowed you to explore some behaviors that may be common to any sexual relationship formed with partners met online. What are some of the things women in your study did specifically because they met their partners through an online website? How might this experience differ from people who have affairs but don’t actively seek them out on the internet?

AW: Women specifically vetted for sexual preferences and skills, which we do not typically do in relationships initiated face-to-face. We rarely see this among folks who meet at work, through friends, or social settings. We do not habitually ask new suitors about their genital size before we have invested a lot of time in the relationship. We simply find out in the moment, at which point we may already be so invested in that relationships that we are unwilling to walk away.

But these women dismissed any potential partners whose sexual desires, stamina, scheduling, or physical traits did not mesh with the women’s preferences. Compatibility in all areas drove the associations.

While an outside partnership formed with a coworker, neighbor, or family friend may be heady and exciting to the point that we set aside our good sense, outside partnerships formed online override the exhilaration of flirtation to make decisions based solely on the man’s potential to bring the pleasure the women sought.

Alicia Walker is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Missouri State University, and author of The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife: Power, Pragmatism, and Pleasure in Women’s Infidelity. Arielle Kuperberg is an Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Follow her on twitter at @ATKuperberg.

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Recently 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 Senior sociology major at Framingham State University, an Administrative Resident Assistant, and a CCF Public Affairs Intern.

Sociologist Joan Maya Mazelis, author of Surviving Poverty: Creating Sustainable Ties among the Poor, is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University-Camden. Her research examines the experiences of people in poverty and the role of social ties in their struggles to survive. In her recently published Washington Post Op-ed she critiques the idea that having the right mind-set can help poor people escape poverty, and discusses her research findings that poor people often blame themselves for their circumstances. As a family sociologist, I was interested in finding out more about the social ties that poor people have, or avoid, and how those ties (or lack thereof) can contribute to poverty or alleviate its effects. I was recently able to interview her about her work:

AK: In your recently published book Surviving Poverty: Creating Sustainable Ties among the Poor, you interview people who are experiencing severe poverty. For some of them, a major factor in the difficulties they experience is not having family ties at all, or not having family members who are willing to help them. Some of your interviewees went on to form long term family-like ties with others that you call “sustainable ties” after joining a poor people’s organization that helped them form those ties.

What do your findings tell us about the importance of family ties or other “sustainable ties” and their connection to falling into and getting out of poverty?

JMM: Ties with others are incredibly important for those struggling financially. Social ties may not help people  escape poverty, but they can help them cope with its worst consequences. One of the most vital ways social ties protect people is helping them to avoid homelessness. For people who live from one paycheck to the next, a missed paycheck due to an illness or other crisis can lead to eviction. But people in this situation might avoid homelessness  if family members can loan them money for rent. And if no one can help with money, family members  might provide a place to stay temporarily, allowing them to avoid living on the street. Many of my research participants who didn’t have family to rely on had experienced homelessness.

Sometimes family ties aren’t as positive as we wish they would be. One participant, Rosa, told me about the time she asked to shower at a cousin’s house; the cousin wanted to charge her and her daughter money for the water they used. Alyssa lived for a time with family members but had to turn over much of her wages to them to do so.

But social ties with people who aren’t family can easily dissolve, especially given the pressure that extreme poverty places on them. Many participants described how this had happened in the past when they relied on non-kin ties. Sustainable ties are ties between people who aren’t family, but last for a long time. In my research, I found that the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU), which brought poor people together in the fight to survive, fostered such sustainable ties between members. Some of these ties have lasted for decades.

KWRU provided housing for members who needed it, and thus filled a void for those who didn’t have family to rely on. As Pauline told me, “when my family didn’t give me nowhere to stay [KWRU] did, and I need somewhere to sleep for my kids. .  .  . When I came here they treated me like a family, like I was part of their little family.” Sustainable  ties people built through KWRU made an enormous difference in members’ lives.

AK: What are some of the differences you found between poor people who were able to build “sustainable ties” through the organization you studied, and poor people who weren’t members of that organization?

JMM: One of the main differences is that those in the organization felt less alone. They had a real sense of community. They also felt enveloped by social support, because they weren’t relying on just one tie. Most of those who weren’t in the organization did have family to rely on, but usually just one or two kin ties. Often those kin ties created a lot of negative feelings, in which family members helped only grudgingly, or the help came with guilt, shame, and strings attached.

People usually turned to KWRU when they were desperate, and therefore the people I interviewed who weren’t members of KWRU were generally a little bit better off—almost all of them had lived with family members as adults and many received other kinds of support from family, like free child care for their kids while they went to work or school.

AK: When doing the research for this book, what important lessons did you learn about addressing poverty and building “sustainable ties” that may be useful for other poor people’s organizations, policy makers, or the average person going through tough financial times?

JMM: One of the key lessons is the importance of reciprocity in building ties that last. Giving back—helping other members, volunteering in the office, and attending rallies—functioned like monetary dues in KWRU. This increased the number of people KWRU could help. It also made members feel better about getting help and helped to foster a sense of community. Organizations that serve poor people could ask them to do small things to invest in additional help and build ties with other clients based on this model.

Policy makers must understand, however, that fundamental needs have to be addressed first. Social ties can do a lot, but they can’t do everything. We need more income supports, child care subsidies, and widely accessible affordable housing. While KWRU members did build sustainable ties with minimal governmental support, their feelings about mutual support outside of KWRU as well as the experiences of those I interviewed who weren’t members of KWRU suggest that desperate poverty makes it very difficult to rely on one another. Positive social policies addressing fundamental needs would take the pressure off; people could be there for each other without worrying about being completely drained.

In terms of what the average person going through tough financial times can do, it’s so easy and common to want to withdraw from other people when you’re struggling financially. People feel embarrassed; they blame themselves, even when larger forces are at work, like a high unemployment rate. I found many participants in my study had done this, and it increased their desperation and depression. So to people going through tough times, I would say, remember that you’re not alone. And everyone needs help sometimes. Don’t be afraid to look for the right community and reach out to it.

Joan Maya Mazelis is Associate Professor of Sociology and an affiliated scholar at the Center for Urban Research and Education at Rutgers University-Camden. Her book, Surviving Poverty: Creating Sustainable Ties among the Poor, is available from NYU Press. Follow her on Twitter @JoanieMazelis. Arielle Kuperberg is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Follow her on twitter at @ATKuperberg.

 

photo credit: Steve Buissinne via pixabay

We are still in a world of pain and wondering what will happen with health care. So let’s go over a few facts again. 

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 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.

Ashton Applewhite is a Council on Contemporary Families expert and has been recognized by the New York Times, National Public Radio, and the American Society on Aging as an expert on ageism. Her new book, “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism,” was just published in April 2016. She blogs at “This Chair Rocks,” where you can follow her ongoing insights, speaks widely, and is the voice of “Yo, is this ageist?” Ashton’s work is a call to wake up to the ageism in and around us, embrace a more accurate and positive view of growing older, and push back. She agreed to answer a few questions for us:

Q: First, a challenge: what’s one single thing you “know” with certainty, after years of research into modern families?

AA: One of the biggest obstacles to the well-being of modern families is the all-American myth of self-reliance—that people can and should “go it alone”—and we don’t call it out enough. That myth, which equates needing help with physical frailty and weakness of character, serves none of us well—least of all caregivers, people with disabilities, and older people (increasingly overlapping circles on the Venn diagram of life).

The myth exacts an immense personal cost: it downplays life’s challenges, it needlessly exhausts, and it shames us when, inevitably, we fall short. The social cost is high too: a culture that idealizes self-reliance serves the anti-welfare agenda of proponents of small government, because it silences and deflects questions about the structures that strand us. This go-it-alone ethic is one reason that care for the very young and very old is not publicly funded, which typically leaves family members holding the bag. Another reason is ageism, the last socially sanctioned prejudice, which disproportionately affects people at either end of the age spectrum.

Q: Give us the “Twitter” version of your current research — in 140 characters (give or take), what are you working on now?

AA: I’ll give you two tweets worth: I’m an author, speaker, blogger, and activist working to make discrimination on the basis of age as unacceptable as any other kind of prejudice. It’s time for a radical age movement, and I hope my new book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, will help catalyze it.

Q: How would you encourage a scholar of family life to work to get their research into public life, affecting policy and challenging assumptions about “average families”?

AA: Consider self-publishing. Jane Friedman’s site is a good starting point. I’ve been published by four of the big five publishers but elected to bring this book to market myself, partly because of their general cluelessness about the new digital landscape and partly because of my subject matter. Self-publishing means more control, more work, and more reliance on the network of friends and colleagues that social media enables. Like many of your publications, my book is a call for progressive social change—in this case to mobilize against ageism as we have against racism, sexism, and homophobia. Hence my slogan: Self-publish together! It’s different, and a lot more congenial, to ask for help from readers who share a goal that benefits many. People respond to a persuasive case that an issue requires collective action. I’m getting real traction, and I think many of my CCF colleagues would too. Self-publish together to change the world!

Molly McNulty was a CCF public affairs intern at Framingham State University 2015-2017. She graduated in May 2017 as a joint Sociology and Education major.

Photo by Jeff Djevdet via Flikr

The term “millennial,” according to Frank Furstenberg, is an overly simplistic blanket term frequently used to describe the generation born anywhere between 1980 and 2004. This leads to confusion when we see debates in the media about where millennials fall on either side of the conservative or liberal binary, even when research shows significant complexity in millennial attitudes and behaviors. This month, I asked Barbara Risman, Professor of Sociology at University of Illinois at Chicago and President of the Board for the Council on Contemporary Families, about new research for her forthcoming book Where Will the Millennials Take Us: Transforming the Gender Structure? The research is in Social Currents. Risman’s findings suggest that as gender itself challenges binaries, so do millennials’ negotiations with the gender structure. Rather than a clear-cut conclusion about “millennial” approaches to gender, Risman finds four unique typologies that situate millennials within the gender structure: the true believers, innovators, rebels, and straddlers.

Q: In your typology, I was intrigued by the gender rebels: This is the millennial group that seems most different from previous generations. They emerged in your investigation when you demarcated material and cultural dimensions of the gender structure. Can you tell us more about how you came to recognize the gender rebels?

BR: I agree with your assessment that these gender rebels are perhaps the one group in my research that appear to be an invention of the millennial generation. Gender rebels are very much like a group I call the innovators; both could be described as trying to walk the walk of feminism, even if feminism is so in the air they breathe, they sometimes do not use the word. At the individual level of analysis, both groups reject being constrained to stereotypically feminine or masculine personality traits, both reject the cultural expectations that men and women should live different kinds of lives, and both are ideologically opposed to gender inequality. They are very similar in their cultural rejection of gender at the individual, interactional and macro ideological levels.

But when it came to the material aspects of gender, not ideas, but bodies and the class between their bodily presentations and the organization of social life, rebels and innovators couldn’t have been more different. The rebels rejected the notion that just because they were born female (or in one case, male) that meant they should present their bodies as feminine (or in one case, masculine). These rebels rejected the material expression of gender with their bodies. At the individual level they were androgynous, or if female, they presented their bodies in ways traditionally associated with masculinity. This had repercussions for how people treated them, with gender policing especially dramatic for men who challenged gender norms, but also for women who challenged how they presented their bodies once they reached puberty. At the macro level of organizational design, anyone who falls between the binary of male and female faces constant oppression as they do not fit within standard social categories. As you suggest, my distinction between cultural and material dimensions of the gender structure help us to understand why the experiences of rebels are so different from those of innovators.   

Q: What do you see as the practical/policy implications of your findings about the complexity of millennial gender typologies for the advancement of gender equality?

BR: There was one response that didn’t differ across groups. It didn’t matter if someone was a true believer in essential gender differences or a rebel, everyone, male or female, or somewhere in between, expected to work throughout their lives. That has great policy implications. We need to change our workplace policies to reflect the reality that all people in this generation expect to work in the paid labor force, and thus, workplaces have to be re-designed to be more family friendly. In this and no doubt future generations, employed adults will also be caretakers of young children, sick relatives and aging parents. We must use social policy to re-design the world of paid work to make this possible. Every society needs both economic activity and caretaking, and if the same people do both, social organizations have to reflect that reality.

A second policy implication reflects the needs of the rebels. Now that we have people who refuse the label of man or woman, and gender categories themselves are under siege by at least a small group of millennials, we have to begin to allow for gender variation in our social world. If there are people who are neither women nor men, then we need bathrooms that anyone can use. One policy implication is to move beyond single-sex bathrooms. Why not continue to require all stalls to have doors, and perhaps add curtains for urinals, and allow everyone to use every bathroom, and wash their hands next to people who are their same sex and those who are not? Why gender products? Why do we need different colored razors for men and women? At the end of my book, I call for a fourth wave of feminism that seeks to eradicate not just sexism but the gender structure itself. Only then will people who are constrained by gender, all of us, will be free.

Q: Your qualitative research makes a strong argument for the heterogeneity of millennials’ relations to the gender structure. That heterogeneity is very important to understanding things as they are, but sometimes in media the message gets lost. What advice do you have for researchers communicating nuanced findings to public audiences, when many in popular media depict millennials as falling on one side of a progressive/not progressive dichotomy?

BR: This is a problem for both qualitative and quantitative researchers. For qualitative research, I suggest creating catchy names for groups that differ, and insisting that the range of responses be covered. For quantitative researchers, I think a suggestion often given by Stephanie Coontz is right on target, and that is to discuss both means and standard deviations, especially when there is great variation around the average, and so people are really having different experiences.

Braxton Jones earned his MA in Sociology at the University of New Hampshire, and serves as a CCF Graduate Research and Public Affairs Scholar.