In the absence of clear pathways to citizenship, undocumented Mexican and Central American immigrants who came to the United States as children, commonly known as “Dreamers,” tend to live in more complex and less stable households than their documented or native-born counterparts, according to a new study.

Prior research has shown the widespread impact that lack of legal status has on immigrants’ economic and social well-being, including reduced likelihood of finishing high school, concentration in dangerous jobs, and lower pay for their labor. Combined with the constant threat of deportation, these vulnerabilities undercut the health and well-being of undocumented Latinos. In “Living Arrangements and Household Complexity among Undocumented Latino Immigrants,” Matthew Hall, Kelly Musick, and I provide the first national estimates of the living arrangements of this group and compare their experiences to those of other racial, ethnic, and immigrant groups.

Our study compared the composition, size, and stability of the households of unauthorized immigrants, documented immigrants, and U.S.-born groups, and examined the extent of these groups’ shared family and residential ties. It used nationally representative data from the 1996, 2001, 2004 and 2008 panels of the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), which include sufficiently large samples of Latino immigrants, information about legal status, and measures of all relationships among household members.

Results show that undocumented migrants are less likely than other groups at similar life stages to live in simple arrangements, exclusively with partners and/or children, and much more likely to co-reside with extended family and non-family members. Their households are also characterized by higher levels of instability, as they change membership, size, and form more frequently than other Latino families.

  • Undocumented Latinos who were living in the U.S. before age 15 are significantly less likely than documented Latinos and U.S.-born Latinos to be living with just a partner or a partner and children, at 47 percent compared with 55 and 52 percent, respectively.
  • They are also twice as likely to live with nonrelatives as other groups (including documented Latinos), at 14 percent compared to about 7 percent.
  • Undocumented migrants are less likely to live with immediate family members, and highly likely to live with extended family members. As many as one-quarter share a household with aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and more distant extended kin, compared with just 12 percent of documented Latinos.
  • The average undocumented Latino lives in households with more people, on average 3.1 adults and 2 children, compared with 2.7 adults for similarly-aged documented Latinos.
  • Undocumented migrants’ household size and composition, along with counts of adults, children, and families, exhibit substantially (and significantly) higher rates of change across waves than all other legal/racial groups, including documented Latinos.

Other research finds that undocumented immigrants are more likely to live in overcrowded housing, less likely to be homeowners (Hall and Greenman 2014), and more likely to be making residential decisions within contexts of significant economic and social constraint (Asad and Rosen 2018). Taken together, these findings illustrate the volatility that distinguishes the daily lives of those who lack authorization status in the U.S. The uncertainty associated with the absence of legal authorization destabilizes the family life of undocumented immigrants and others – including U.S.-born citizen children who may be living in their households.

Our study, as well as the other work cited here, sheds much-needed light on some aspects of the lives of those affected by their documentation disadvantage. However, it is critical to note that our analysis cannot speak to the heightened precariousness of Dreamers’ lives due to uncertainty about the future of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Our analyses are also unable to reflect the experiences of the thousands of people who are not included in household data because they are being detained and placed in foster arrangements as part of U.S. family separation and immigrant detention policies. Other research indicates that the looming threat of deportation and detention has consequences for the living arrangements of even U.S.-born citizen children living in households, so there is reason to believe that the current social and political climate may already be compounding the household and family instability and complexity of those who are undocumented (Amuedo-Dorantes and Arenas-Arroyo 2018).

Providing Dreamers with pathways toward permanent residence and the cessation of family separation and institutionalization policies could stabilize and strengthen family life and promote the wellbeing of future generations of immigrant families.



Youngmin Yi,



Youngmin Yi is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology at Cornell University

A Research Brief Prepared for the University of Texas at Austin Population Research Center Research Brief Series

Child support enforcement aims to increase child well-being by ensuring that noncustodial parents contribute to children’s material well-being. Yet owing child support debt puts nonresident parents at risk for going to jail, triggering potentially negative collateral consequences, particularly on children. Understanding more about jail for child support nonpayment, therefore, is important for child well-being.

Enforcing child support orders is connected to both the welfare and criminal justice systems. When a parent with a child support order receives public assistance, some of the child support goes to the state rather than all of it going directly to the parent. In fact, about one quarter of the approximately $144 billion in child support debt is owed to the state to reimburse welfare payments.

About 70 percent of the 15 million open child support cases owe debt. Noncustodial parents who fail to make their court-ordered child support payments can be found in contempt of court and incarcerated for their failure to pay. Being jailed for child support debt is a multistep process. Noncustodial parents must first live apart from their children; next, they need to have a formal child support order; next, they need to accrue child support debt. Only this last group is at risk of going to jail for not paying their child support debt.

Both the state—because it can recoup some of the costs of public assistance—and custodial parents who are owed child support have incentives to pursue child support debt. Jailing for child support nonpayment is just one of many mechanisms of child support enforcement, but little is known about how frequently this tactic is used or against whom.

The quality of the relationship between the mother and father of the child could shape a parent’s progress into becoming at risk for jail for child support debt. Many custodial parents are owed child support debt, but not all pursue this debt. A mother might seek to enforce a child support order against the father of their child when the relationship between them is poor or when either parent has moved on with a new partner or new children.

Similarly, conflict and mistrust between parents is one reason fathers give for their hesitation to pay child support. Also, when a father has a new partner and children, he often “starts over” with this new family, which could result in a lower investment in the first partner and children. This family complexity may also affect his ability to pay, as new residential children must compete with his other nonresidential children for family resources.

This brief describes a study of who goes to jail for nonpayment of child support, focusing on the factors that make it more likely for someone to be sent to jail for child support debt. Data come from four waves of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCW), a sample of nearly 5,000 families, when focal children were ages one, three, five, and nine years.

Key Findings

  • 53% of children in the FFCW sample had a nonresident father by the time they were 9 years old (most noncustodial parents in the FFCW sample were male; the number of noncustodial mothers in the FFCW sample was too small for analysis).
    • 52% of nonresident fathers had a formal child support order
      • 60% of fathers with child support orders had child support debt
        • 14% of fathers with child support debt – 1 in 7– were jailed for that debt (see figure)
  • Two main factors increase the risk to go to jail for unpaid child support.
    • Amount of money owed: Dads owing more than $10,000 in child support debt are more than three times as likely to go to jail for unpaid child support, compared to those owing less than $500.
    • Children with other women: Dads who have children by more than one mother have 60% higher odds of going to jail for unpaid child support, compared to those with children by only one mother.
  • In addition, fathers are more likely to have a formal child support order and accrue child support debt if the moms have received public assistance and there is conflict in their relationship with the mom.

Cozzolino brief figure

This figure shows the multistep process of being in the pool of noncustodial fathers1 at risk of being jailed for child support debt and who among child support debtors are more likely to go to jail.
1 Findings focus exclusively on noncustodial fathers; noncustodial mothers in the FFCW is too small for analysis.

Policy Implications

The child support enforcement system is a civil entity which may refer noncustodial parents for nonpayment of child support to the courts. Most frequently, these are civil courts, which may not provide the same due process protections as criminal courts, such as the right to a court-appointed attorney. This study estimated that 14% of child support debtors were jailed for nonpayment of child support. Extrapolating this figure to the full population of child support debtors (11 million individuals in 2014), this means as many as 1.5 million parents could be getting sent to jail for unpaid child support. These incarcerations could constitute a huge financial cost to the state.

Parental incarceration could also have negative impacts on children. Child support policy aims to increase the wellbeing of children by ensuring that both parents contribute to their upbringing. However, incarcerating parents for nonpayment of child support could be triggering negative consequences for children—contrary to the child support system’s stated goal.


Cozzolino, E. (2018). Public assistance, relationship context, and jail for child support debtSocius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World 4:1-25.

Suggested Citation

Cozzolino, E. (2018). Who goes to jail for child support debt? PRC Research Brief 3(6). DOI: 10.15781/T21834K7X.


This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF DDRIG 1628128) and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development training grant T32HD007081. Infrastructure support for the Population Research Center at The University of Texas was provided by a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (P2CHD042849). The paper on which this brief is based was awarded the 2018 Parker Frisbie Graduate Student Paper Competition for the best graduate student paper addressing pressing issues in demographic research and population science. This award was founded in honor of the many contributions Dr. Frisbie made in establishing the PRC as one the most highly-esteemed NICHD-supported population centers in the U.S., and in recognition of his contributions as a teacher and mentor.

Elizabeth Cozzolino ( received her PhD in sociology in May 2018 from The University of Texas at Austin, where she was a graduate student trainee in the Population Research Center. You can learn more about her and her work at

Years ago, when interviewing a woman in a study of stepfamilies, I (Coleman) was struck by comments she made about her ex-stepdaughter. This woman had helped raise the girl from early childhood (age 2) into early adolescence. The father of this girl had physical custody of her because the child’s mother suffered from a drug addiction. The stepmother I interviewed and the father of this girl had divorced when the stepdaughter was 12 or 13 and the woman never saw the child after that. In the interview, the former stepmother shared through tears that after the divorce her ex-stepdaughter had called and written several letters begging her to get in touch, but she had not, she told me, because “it didn’t seem appropriate.” This was during an era when divorced couples generally were expected to sever all ties and not cooperate with each other in any way – after all, the thinking went, if the couple could get along well, then why had they divorced? When remarried couples divorced, children nearly always went with the biological parent and often never saw or interacted with their stepparent or stepsiblings again. This “clean break” of stepfamily ties after divorce may have seemed “natural” and “normal” to many adults – after all, stepparents were neither genetically nor legally related to stepchildren, but to some stepchildren and stepparents, such as the woman I interviewed and her ex-stepdaughter, these breaks were emotionally painful because they ended long-term family relationships. For example, the stepmother I interviewed had raised her stepdaughter for a decade and was likely an important figure in the girl’s life. The former stepmother’s comment that getting in touch with her stepdaughter “didn’t seem appropriate” nagged at me for years before our research team decided to explore what we called “ex-steprelationships.”

Ex-step kin are not rare. In the United States, about one-third of children will spend part of their childhood living with a stepparent. The divorce rate among remarriages is higher than that of first marriages, so a lot of these children will go through multiple family transitions. Maintaining ties with ex-stepparents could help children in terms of resources, relationships, and emotional stability. Our legal systems, however, generally do not recognize rights or responsibilities for ex-stepparents after a divorce. Without legal precedents, ex-stepkin are left on their own to figure out their postdivorce relationships. To explore this phenomenon, we launched a series of studies in which we interviewed former stepkin (stepchildren, stepparents, and stepgrandparents) using grounded theory methods in which we asked open-ended questions and let the study participants tell us what was important to them.

In the first study, we interviewed 41 young adults who had been stepchildren and who had experienced a parent’s remarriage breakup. Our questions focused on their experiences with former stepparents both before and after the divorce. We found three perspectives about ex-stepparents from stepchildren, which we labelled claimed, disclaimed, and unclaimed. About 25% of the young people we interviewed continued to claim their stepparent as kin after the divorce. Another 25% had claimed the stepparent as kin during the remarriage but cut all ties with them after the divorce (i.e., they disclaimed the stepparent). Finally, about half had never claimed the stepparent as kin (i.e., the unclaimed).

The ex-stepchildren who continued to claim their stepparents and those who had claimed them during the remarriage and disclaimed them after divorce had spent a lot of time with the stepparent when the remarriage was going well. During the remarriage, they felt close to their stepparents and considered them to be a family member if not a parent.

The ex-stepchildren who still claimed their stepparents as kin after divorce got help from parents in doing so. Their parents either encouraged them to stay in touch with ex-stepparents or were neutral about it, and thus did not discourage them from doing so. Those who had half-siblings from the dissolved remarriage were more likely to stay in contact with ex-stepparents than those who did not. The former stepparents were open to continuing to be in a relationship with them and did what they could to keep lines of connection open. Some ex-stepchildren waited until after the post-divorce flames and hostility had died down before becoming involved again with their stepparent. One man waited five years before reconnecting with his stepfather, and they rekindled a very close relationship. The ex-stepchildren who continued to claim their stepparent after the remarriage ended said that they continued to receive support from their ex-step in the forms of help with college expenses, other financial help, and the kinds of assistance young people seek from parents and parental figures (e.g., advice, emotional support).

The ones who disclaimed their stepparents, did so almost immediately after the end of the remarriage, often because of loyalty to their biological parent. Some said they cut off ties with the stepparent because their parent had revealed negative information about the ex-stepparent. These disclaiming ex-stepchildren took the side of their biological parent, and although it often was emotionally painful for them to do so, they quickly and decisively cut off ties to their ex-stepparents. These young people felt sad about the losses they experienced as a result of this divorce, and they often were still angry at the stepparent, whom they generally blamed for the divorce.  In some cases, ex-stepchildren wished they could resolve some of their feelings and wanted to reconnect with the ex-stepparent, but did not know how to make this happen, and even felt ambivalent about whether it should or not.


The last group of ex-stepchildren, who had never claimed their stepparents as kin, was older when their parent remarried, the remarriage was relatively short, and the stepparent and stepchild had spent little time together. Some stated they had always disliked the stepparent. These ex-stepchildren felt no sense of loss and some were even relieved after their parent’s divorce from the stepparent. They had made no attempts to connect with their stepparent after divorce and neither had their former stepparent tried to contact them.






We were encouraged in this study that none of the ex-stepchildren thought that it was inappropriate to continue these stepfamily ties. Some of the claiming ex-stepchildren in our study noted, however, that a lack of social norms and expectations for the ex-steprelationships after a remarriage ends made them unsure at times about what to do. Maybe these young people and their stepparents and parents are creating new norms, but the absence of guidelines or social support is unfortunate, at least for some ex-stepchildren who claimed their stepparents as parents during the remarriage; ex-stepchildren who continued to claim stepparents as kin cited many advantages to maintaining those relationships.


Lawrence Ganong is a Chancellor’s Professor of Human Development and Family Science and Emeritus Professor of Nursing at the University of Missouri. Marilyn Coleman is a Distinguished Curator’s Professor Emerita of Human Development and Family Science at the University of Missouri. They have studied post-divorce family relationships and stepfamily relationships for over four decades. They may be reached at and

This briefing paper, prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families, was originally released on January 16, 2019.

Although many sexist prejudices have weakened over time, gender stereotypes still influence employers’ decisions during the hiring process, and those stereotypes disadvantage both women and men. In a forthcoming article in Social Forces, I show that employers continue to assume that men and women have “naturally” different skills and preferences that make members of each sex better or less suited for different types of jobs. They associate men with physical prowess, leadership, mechanical aptitude, and competitiveness, whereas they associate women with nurturance and “people skills” such as tact, patience, cooperation and communication. Women are assumed to be less capable or interested in the first set of qualities and men are assumed to be less capable or interested in the second set.

We have long known that sexist stereotypes hurt women’s hiring prospects in the labor market, but my research shows that it hurts some women more than others and that it also hurts men. I find that employers tend to discriminate against female and male applicants when either applies for a job typically associated with the other sex. Think of a woman applying to a manufacturing job, or a man applying to an administrative support position. Surprisingly, however, I found no discrimination against women in the early hiring phases when they applied for male-dominated middle-class jobs, at least in the mid-status, entry-level positions that I tested. By contrast, working-class women applying for traditionally male-dominated working-class jobs faced significant discrimination, while men applying for jobs that have traditionally been staffed by women faced discrimination in both working-class and middle-class contexts.

Using a field experiment, I submitted fictitious male and female resumes to openings for more than 3,000 jobs. Specifically, I sent resumes for male-dominated and female-dominated jobs in both middle-class and working-class occupations, as indicated in the chart below. The middle-class jobs were entry-level, required a bachelor’s degree, and paid well above minimum wage but well below high-paying professions. The working-class jobs paid minimum wage or higher and had few educational requirements. In each class of jobs, the average pay rate varied by gender, with jobs that mainly employ men typically paying more than the jobs that mainly employ women.

Each job opening received one male resume and one female resume. The male and female resumes were comparable in education, skill, and work experience. I then recorded the callbacks that the male and female applicants received from real employers for a job interview.

Discrimination against Female Applicants

My findings show that employers discriminated against female applicants for working-class jobs primarily occupied by men. For example, in manufacturing and janitorial positions, male applicants were 44 percent more likely than equally qualified female applicants to receive a callback from employers. Discrimination was particularly pronounced when male-dominated working-class jobs also emphasized masculine attributes in their job ads, such as requiring job seekers to demonstrate physical strength or mechanical aptitude. In these cases, male applicants’ probability of a callback for an interview was double that of female applicants (.10 versus .05).

By contrast, I found no discrimination against female applicants during the early hiring process in middle-class male-dominated jobs, likely because these jobs stress attributes, such as general cognitive ability, that have become less exclusively associated with men. As late as the 1960s, most Americans did not view women and men as equally capable of rationality and critical-thinking. This seems to be one area in which sexist prejudices have been greatly reduced, to the benefit of women seeking entry into jobs that require educational credentials. In contrast, masculine cultures in working-class employment continue to stress attributes that are stereotypically linked to men, such as mechanical aptitude or physical strength. This is true even when few real differences exist in requirements. For example, female applicants faced hiring discrimination in janitorial work even though a female-dominated working-class job such as a house cleaner often requires similar strength and stamina.

Despite the fact that women of all education levels have incentives to enter male-dominated jobs because they pay significantly more than comparable female-dominated jobs, only women with bachelor degrees or higher have done so in significant numbers. The fact that working-class employers exclude women from initial job-candidate pools might help explain why many working-class jobs remain as segregated today as they were in the 1950s.

Discrimination Against Male Applicants

Male applicants also faced discrimination during the hiring process due to sexist gender stereotypes surrounding men’s fit with female-oriented work, and in this case, discrimination occurred in both working-class and middle-class occupations during early hiring processes. I found that regardless of the occupational class or educational requirements of a job, employers were significantly less likely to extend an interview invitation to a male applicant compared to a female applicant for a job in a female-dominated occupation. Female applicants were 52 percent and 21 percent more likely than male applicants to receive a callback in middle-class and working-class contexts, respectively. So, in contrast to my findings about women, discrimination against men entering female-dominant occupations was highest in middle-class jobs.

Male applicants were particularly disadvantaged when a job was both female-dominated and the job ad emphasized feminine attributes. For example, when a middle-class female-dominated job emphasized supposedly feminine attributes, such as friendliness and good communication skills, in the job ads, a female applicant was almost twice as likely as the male applicant to receive a callback (.10 versus .06).

One possible reason for this discrimination is that “women’s work” is generally considered beneath men, suggesting that there might be something “wrong” with a man who wants to do it, or raising suspicion that the man would leave as soon as he got a better, more “masculine” job. Indeed, research shows that men in female-dominated jobs have a higher turnover rate, tending to leave soon after their entry.

Alternatively, employers may assume (or fear that customers will assume) that the stereotypes associated with masculinity will make a man less competent at the work and that he will be less patient, less tactful, less nurturing, and so forth.

Sexism thus limits men’s career choices as well as women’s. Although restricting men’s entry into female-dominated jobs, which are typically lowerpaying, is less costly than barring women from typically higher-paying male-dominated jobs, such discrimination could be increasingly problematic for men, since industries dominated by women, such as service and healthcare, are projected to add the most jobs in the future.

Still, it does not follow that men are now more disadvantaged by sexism than women. For one thing, once men do gain entry to female-dominated jobs, they continue to earn higher wages than similarly qualified women, and in some cases are actually promoted more quickly. So while men may struggle to get an interview, these disadvantages often quickly dissipate (particularly for White men) if they land a job in a female-dominated field.

Second, it is important to note that although women have had success entering middle-level jobs that were traditionally occupied by men, they have had limited success entering or being promoted equally in elite male-dominated jobs. Coupled with my findings about discrimination against women entering male-dominated working-class jobs, this suggests that women are still discriminated against in work thought to require any of the physical OR mental prowess, leadership, and status traditionally associated with men.


In conclusion, gender stereotypes and biases during the hiring process limit both men’s and women’s career options. For women applying to male-dominated jobs, hiring inequality seems to be most pronounced at both the bottom of the occupational hierarchy and at the very top, where rewards are exceptionally high. For men applying to female-dominated jobs, hiring inequality exists across the occupational structure. Although this discrimination is less costly than the kind experienced by women, it may hamper working-class men in particular from adjusting to the changing occupational structure of America, as blue-collar jobs continue to shrink. And until we stop prejudging people’s interests and capacities on the basis of sexist stereotypes, we will continue to steer men and women into different and unequal jobs, denying them the opportunity to develop a well-rounded combination of human, as opposed to gender-specific, capacities.

By Jill Yavorsky, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Organizational Science, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, CCF advisory available here.


A briefing paper prepared by Maria Cecilia Hwang, Rice University; Carolyn Choi, University of Southern California; and Rhacel Parreñas, University of Southern California, for the Council on Contemporary Families’ Gender Matters Online Symposium (.pdf).

The Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents has generated wide public opposition, with the United Nations condemning the practice as a violation of the rights of a child. Yet family separation is a central feature of international temporary labor migration policies that promote the recruitment of migrant workers but bar them from migrating with their families.

As we explain in the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender in “Women on the Move: Stalled Gender Revolution in Global Migration,” family separation across international borders and vast distances has become the norm for many migrant workers across the globe. In the Philippines, around 25 percent of children live apart from one or both parents while in Moldova, approximately 31 percent of children under the age of 15 are left behind by both parents. Temporary migrant workers make up half the world’s migrant population, but most are classified as “unskilled” and therefore often categorically disqualified from sponsoring their families. This policy affects temporary migrants globally, including construction workers in the Middle East; farm workers in Canada, United States, and European countries; factory workers in South Korea and Taiwan; and domestic workers across the Middle East and Asia. As a result, in the absence of jobs back home, temporary migrant workers are forced to leave their children in order to earn a living for their families.

When Moms Migrate

Globally, men and women migrate at almost the same rate, but family separation affects women in distinctive ways that reinforce gender inequality. Because societies idealize mothers as the primary caretakers of their children, migrant mothers are often vilified for abandoning their children. For instance, New York Times article described the migration of Romanian women as a “national tragedy,” blaming women for the demise of the Romanian family and children’s delinquency.

In addition, the responsibility for maintaining transnational families often rests on women. Even when fathers are left behind with children as mothers seek employment in other countries, it is generally an extended network of women, including female kin and local domestic workers, who provide most of the childcare back home. As a result, family separation creates what has been called the international division of reproductive labor, meaning the global transfer of reproductive labor from one group of women to another group of women with lesser means. As depicted in the documentary Chain of Love, women from developing countries such as the Philippines leave their own children in order to financially provide for their families by assuming the childcare responsibilities of women in more affluent developed countries; in turn, older daughters, extended female relatives, or paid local domestic workers in the home country care for children who are left behind. This transfer of care not only reinforces gender inequality but also exacerbates hierarchies among women.

Finally, maintaining split-apart families from a long distance is a double burden for women. Not only are they expected to provide financially for their families even while paying for their own subsistence in the host countries, but advancements in telecommunication technologies have also created greater expectations for migrant mothers to provide emotional care and affirm selfless commitment to their children’s well-being from afar through telephone calls, SMS messages, and Skype calls. This can be especially difficult given time zone differences. These caregiving expectations do not generally apply to migrant fathers, whose responsibilities to their children continue to be judged by their ability to financially provide for their families.

No End in Sight                                                                                

The separation of migrant families is likely to continue. The International Organization for Migration has called for the global expansion of temporary labor migration programs, championing these programs as “win-win-win” situations. Supposedly, migrant workers gain higher earnings, destination countries fill labor deficits in areas of work shunned by their citizens, and origin countries ease their unemployment problem and benefit from remittances. Ironically, this triple “win” will result in more children being separated from their parents and increased gender inequality, as women are still expected to care for transnational families. Women will continue to be burdened with the responsibility of mothering from a distance and in a different time zone, while women who stay in the home country must devote more time in providing care for left-behind children.


Maria Cecilia Hwang, Henry Luce Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in Southeast Asian Studies, Rice University, Carolyn Choi, PhD Candidate, University of Southern California, Rhacel Parreñas, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies, University of Southern California, They are authors of “Women on the Move: Stalled Gender Revolution in Global Migration” in the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender.

Stephanie Coontz offers reflections on the Council on Contemporary Families brief, Hiring-related Discrimination: Sexist Beliefs and Expectations Hurt both Women’s and Men’s Career Options, by Jill Yavorsky.

VR: You edited Jill Yavorsky’s brief on hiring-related discrimination, where she reports that both men and women are stereotyped in hiring decisions–and men suffer from this, though women suffer more. How does history play a role in this? 

SC: It wasn’t until 1972 that The Equal Employment Opportunity Act prohibited job discrimination on the basis of sex, and not until 1973 did the Supreme Court definitively rule that newspapers could not sort job ads, as had been done for decades, into “Help Wanted: Male” and “Help Wanted: Female.” I studied New York Times ads from the 1960s where employers openly stipulated that applicants must be “pretty-looking, cheerful,” “poised, attractive,” “perky,” and even “really beautiful.” No ads for females stressed analytical abilities—only ads for males did. Many employers clearly agreed with the psychiatrist who argued in a 1962 Yale Review article that most young women “are incapable of future long-range intellectual interests” before they had married and raised their children – if then.

The fact that women are now considered equally capable of handling jobs that require education, analysis, and reason is a step forward. But as Yavorsky shows, employers still tend to believe that men are best suited for challenging jobs that require physical or mental prowess. Her findings likely underestimate the full extent of discrimination because many studies find that when jobs are described as requiring stereotypically male attributes, or the majority of workers pictured in the ads are male, women are discouraged from applying in the first place.

VR: What is your view of Yavorsky’s finding that women applying to men’s middle-class jobs experience fewer barriers in getting in the door–but they appear to face significant barriers once they are at work? 

SC: This seems to be especially true in elite professions. As I point out elsewhere, the greatest wage discrimination by gender used to be in working-class and lower middle-class jobs, partly because of men’s greater rates of unionization. But as wage rates and job security in many traditional blue-collar jobs have fallen, we now see the opposite. Many women have established a firm foothold in mid-level middle-class jobs, and their wages have risen significantly. In the most elite professions, however, men’s wages have risen exponentially more, so that the biggest gender wage gaps are now at the top of the occupational ladder rather than at the bottom or middle.

Once women (and minorities) do get hired in traditionally male blue-collar jobs, they tend to be paid similar wages to men, accounting for seniority. But professional jobs where raises, promotions, and incentives rest on more subjective standards allow more free rein to sexist and racist biases.

VR: Men who apply for women-dominated working-class jobs appear to be subject to hiring discrimination, and Yavorsky suggests that as jobs shift to more service sector jobs, this could become a growing problem. Do you agree?

SC: On average, women’s wages still lag behind those of men with comparable education and experience. But more women than men have been upwardly mobile over the past 40 years, because working women have made slow but significant gains from a very low base, while men have lost many of the secure, well-paying blue-collar jobs once open to men without a college education. Between 1979 and 2007, the percentage of workers in middle-skill occupations fell, but for women the vast majority of this shift was due to their moving into higher-skill jobs as they got more experience and education. By contrast, a full half of the shift for men was into lower-skill jobs. Ironically, then, women’s historical disadvantages have incentivized many to seek more education to make a secure living, but men’s historical advantages have slowed their response to the changing job market. Many still believe they can earn a living wage without a college degree, or they assume that all female-dominated jobs will pay less and have less opportunity for advancement. As Yavorsky shows, employers exhibit the same stereotypes in reverse, discriminating against men even in – especially in — the mid-status, middle-class jobs that are expanding much more quickly than other sectors of the economy and that now pay more than many traditionally male-dominated blue-collar jobs. With most families requiring two incomes to get by, gender equality in hiring and promotion ought to be on the agenda of all people who make their living through wages, not just feminists.

Stephanie Coontz is author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. Follow her at @StephanieCoontz. Virginia Rutter is co-editor of Families as They Really Are. Follow her at @VirginiaRutter. 

photo by mastertux via pixabay

A short interview with Stephanie Coontz by Virginia Rutter on a new CCF study.

VR: You edited the new brief report on cohabitation trends from the Council on Contemporary Families. In it, Arielle Kuperberg reports that premarital cohabitation is more common—occurring before 70 percent of marriages. But what does this new research tell us about Americans’ intimate lives? 

SC: First of all, it adds to our understanding of how quickly the norms and dynamics of personal relationships are changing. Until 1970, couples who cohabited before marriage were 82 percent more likely to divorce than those who married directly. That extra risk is now gone. Similarly, until the 1980s, marriages in which wives had more education than their husbands had a higher risk of divorce than other couples. But since 1990 that extra risk has also disappeared. Despite constant claims to the contrary, it is no longer true that marriages where the wife earns more than her husband are at higher risk of divorce. Finally, couples where the wife did most of the childcare and housework used to report better sex lives than couples with a more egalitarian division of labor. Now the opposite is true.

Within couple relationships there are many signs of growing equality. But that leads to a second contribution of the paper, which illustrates the growing inequality among couples on the basis of higher education, and in turn on their prospects for earning a family wage.

VR: Cohabitation looks like it is useful and valuable to many—as Kuperberg shows in the reversal of that out-of-date link between cohabitation and divorce. (See her awesome Figure 3 for a visual of the reversal!) But some people don’t want to cohabit. What do you think of Kuperberg’s findings about religion, escalating inequality, and access to “direct marrying”?

SC: Despite the widespread social acceptability of premarital cohabitation, a minority of Americans, especially those with strong religious beliefs, continue to disapprove of the practice and prefer to marry directly. Kuperberg highlights the painful dilemmas facing those who hold more traditional values but lack the resources to act on them. While two-thirds of religiously-observant women with a BA or higher did not cohabit before marriage, this was true of only 14 percent of equally observant women who did not attend college — and of just three percent of religiously-observant women without a high school diploma. As Kuperberg suggests, this is almost certainly not because of different values but of different options.

I agree that this gap likely reflects the difficulties that less-educated couples face in meeting the increasingly high economic bar for marriage. And it is especially troubling that the gap used to be just between the least-educated women and everyone else but is now greatest between the most-educated women and everyone else. The same escalating inequality between the most highly-educated Americans and others who work just as hard but are paid drastically less is also seen in rates of non-marriage and out-of-wedlock childbearing.

This divergence is likely to continue, given recent evidence that, as yet, the only group to have recovered fully from the Great Recession is people with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

VR: So what do you make of that? Growing equality within couples, and growing inequality between couples?  

SC: For one thing, it means that much family instability results not from people’s different values or “culture” but from their inability to meet the high interpersonal and economic expectations of marriage that most Americans now embrace. I am thinking of the economically insecure people who move in together rapidly and then don’t move on to marriage, resulting in a lot of churning; the growing numbers of people who are not seen as marriageable by others due to poor job prospects or low wages (low-income men right now have the worst marriage prospects); youths who lack the kind of life opportunities that give them incentives and tools to defer childbearing.

For another thing, when people feel that they are being excluded from the American Dream, they often embrace short-term coping mechanisms or compensating behaviors that make their personal lives and relationships even more difficult. And with higher wage inequality, fewer work-family protections, and a weaker social safety net than other advanced industrial economies, the U.S. imposes exceptionally heavy penalties on people who become single parents or do not complete higher education, leading to lower rates of social mobility – and higher rates of personal problems. As I’ve written elsewhere, the long-standing American myth that individuals succeed purely on their own, on the basis of their personal “grit,” actually undermines people’s ability to establish families that can thrive.


Stephanie Coontz is author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. Follow her at @StephanieCoontz. Virginia Rutter is co-editor of Families as They Really Are. Follow her at @VirginiaRutter.

Reprinted from Psychology Today

This column is another in the series of articles based on the new Handbook of the Sociology of Gender  edited by Barbara J. Risman, Carissa Froyum and William Scarborough.

What do diapers, depression, and mothers have in common? That may seem like a trick question but the answer has implications for American social policy. Middle-class parents simply take for granted that diapers cost money, one of the many expenses of having a baby. But for poor mothers, who are often single parents, diapers, or rather running out of them, becomes a crisis that can trigger psychological stress, perhaps even postpartum depression. While parents are raising the next generation of American workers, we continue to ignore their needs, and pretend that every family has enough breadwinners to cover their basic necessities. But we know that single mothers, often struggling to live in poverty, face great obstacles. Our social safety net doesn’t provide them with security, and the jobs available to women without college degrees can’t support their families, even if they work so many hours a week they barely see their children. Perhaps poor mothers are the women in our society that are most disadvantaged by gender inequality.

To illustrate this, we introduce you to Patricia, a 32-year-old mother of three. She receives cash aid on the 2nd of each month and immediately buys the 120-count box of store-brand diapers at her local supermarket for $30. “It’s the thing we buy first because it’s the thing we can least do without,” she explained. Though she is grateful that the cheapest diapers do not give her daughter Sofia a rash, she worries that they hold less and leak more. Patricia stretches the box as far as possible. She lets 18-month-old Sofia go without diapers at home, closely monitors and minimizes Sofia’s liquid intake, rarely leaves the house, and “prays she doesn’t get sick because that means more diapers.” When that box runs out, Patricia can usually scrounge up enough change for the smaller $4.25 pack by collecting cans, selling some food stamps, or breaking her four-year-old son’s piggy bank with a promise to replace it. When she cannot, Patricia uses paper towels secured with duct tape. A victim of domestic abuse, Patricia has post-traumatic stress disorder and often goes without food, toilet paper, and tampons to save diaper money because she told Randles: “The kids come first. Providing those diapers means I’m a good mother who keeps them away from my trauma and money problems.”

Patricia’s struggle is not rare. Diaper need—lacking sufficient diapers to keep an infant dry, comfortable, and healthy—is an often hidden consequence of poverty that affects one in three families in America. A Yale University study in 2013 found that mothers like Patricia who don’t have enough diapers for their children were almost twice as likely to struggle with postpartum depression. Though the Yale study could not determine if diaper need caused post-partum depression, mothers Randles recently interviewed help us understand the connection. As Trista, a 28-year-old mother of three confided, “I experience extreme anxiety when I use a diaper. It’s worse than worrying about food because I can always eat less, be creative in the kitchen, and go to food banks. But when you run out of diapers, your child can’t do one of their most basic human things in a dignified and clean way. It more than anything makes me feel like a horrible failure as a parent.” Trista sold her blood plasma twice a week for four months solely to buy diapers for her two youngest children.

Forty-five percent of U.S. children younger than three—5.2 million—live in low-income or poor families that struggle to provide diapers as a basic need of early childhood. Yet, for the most part, U.S. social policy does not recognize diapers as a necessity. Diapers are categorized as luxury “unallowable expenses” under public programs that provide food for young children, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Though parents can use welfare cash aid for diapers, the $75 average monthly diaper bill would alone use between eight to forty percent of the average monthly state benefit. Only one state—California—currently offers diaper vouchers for welfare recipients, and most states still tax diapers based on the logic that, unlike drugs such as Viagra, diapers are not medically necessary.

This oversight is not unique. Most policy in the United States ignores the bodily needs of women and children. Most states also still tax feminine hygiene products. Diaper need and how mothers like Patricia and Trista manage keeping their babies clean and dry are deeply gendered issues. Mothers do most of the physical labor of diapering. Beyond this, poor mothers are more likely to be single mothers, and so do most of the planning and emotional labor for their children. But even mothers with partners told Randles about the stress of the cost of diapers and the work of managing diaper need. When Randles talked to middle-class mothers about how many diapers they had on hand, they casually responded with answers like, “a few boxes in the closet, an extra pack or so in the car, and drawers full near each of the changing tables.” Poor mothers were more likely to respond as Patricia did when she said, “I have seven in the house, two in my purse, and one that I’ve hidden in case of a dire emergency. Based on how often my daughter goes to the bathroom and the likelihood that she’ll pee twice as often as she poops, I know those ten diapers will last me exactly two days before I run out and have to figure out how to get more.” This degree of specificity was perhaps most telling about how diaper need can cause anxiety for poor mothers. The problem is not just that they have fewer diapers, but the amount of stress involved in calculating, saving, and sacrificing to stretch limited diaper supplies as far as possible. Diapers are not a luxury. The taken-for-granted ability to buy ahead, stock up, and not give much thought to running out certainly is.

The near political invisibility of diaper need and mothers’ efforts to manage it reflect what Risman calls the gender structure, or how gender inequality affects all aspects of our of  lives. Women’s continued primary responsibility for unpaid care, including diapering, remains a linchpin of inequality. As a society we continue to devalue the care of others. For poor mothers, most likely to be single, the social, economic, and political devaluation of care creates an overwhelming burden. By failing to account for the real needs of families, parents, and children, social policies enforce gender inequality and lead to children’s suffering. In the United States, we pretend as if individual parents alone should be responsible for children. Parents are tasked with meeting all the practical and emotional needs of families. But we need a village to support today’s children, especially those born into poverty. Policies intended to support families must take into account that mothers, often by themselves, are the ones struggling to keep their children fed, dry, clean and clothed. The invisibility of the need for diapers provides a clear case of how ignoring gender inequality in social policy can have disastrous effects for women, and their children. We’ve successfully confronted similar problems before through targeted gender policies such as WIC that recognize the basic needs of mothers and their families. For the sake of Patricia, Trista, and the millions of mothers like them, it’s time we do it again with diapers.


Jennifer Randles is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Fresno State. Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council of Contemporary Families.

In an opinion piece I recently wrote for CNN on the midterm election results, I argued that although the gender gap in support for Democrats remains huge, what should really worry the GOP is that the gap is narrowing. I add new evidence about the midterm results in this blog.

This November, American women voted for Democrats over Republicans by an unprecedented margin of 19 points, twice the margin by which they favored Democrats in 2016. The gap between male and female voting preferences was 23 points. Yet this gender gap was only one point higher than in 2016, because although women have moved faster and further than men, this November a significant section of men moved in the same direction – away from the racism, sexism and fear-mongering promulgated by Trump and his enablers.

Focusing narrowly on the size of the gender gap over the past two years not only understates the setbacks the GOP has experienced with men. It also obscures significant changes in the racial and class make-up of Democratic voters. In 2016, the Democratic advantage with female voters was largely due to the votes of nonwhite women. Overall, white women favored Republicans by 12 points. Only a bare majority of white female college graduates (51 percent) voted for Hilary Clinton; a large majority of white women without a college degree chose Trump. This November, by contrast, 59 percent of college-educated white women voted Democrat, and although the majority of white working-class women still voted Republican, they increased their support for Democrats by 13 points, enough to create an even split in votes for Democrats and Republicans among all white female voters.

White males without a college degree remained strongly Republican, but their support was much less solid than in 2016. In Michigan and Wisconsin, the Republican margins of victory among white men without a college degree were at least 20 points lower than two years ago.

Meanwhile, in the highest youth turnout in 25 years, more than two-thirds of 18-29 year-olds voted Democratic, producing a record-breaking victory margin of 35 percentage points for Democrats.

Breaking down the vote by age sheds a different light on white voters’ preferences, countering the idea that whites are inescapably tethered to the GOP. One 2018 exit poll found that whites aged 18 to 29 favored Democrats by a margin of 13, while whites aged 30 to 44 moved from a majority for Republicans in 2016 to an even split. A different study showed whites aged 30 to 44 moving from a 21 point margin for Republicans in 2014 to a 9 point margin for Democrats in 2018.

For those of us concerned about how best to counter the newly emboldened racists and misogynists in America, the midterm results are not all good news. In Georgia, white women without a college degree voted for the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Brian Kemp, at a higher rate than their male counterparts. In fact, a higher percentage of these women voted for Kemp than they did for Trump two years earlier.

Additionally, in several conservative states the polarization that elsewhere turned many voters off the GOP resulted in gains for rightwing candidates, with rural, conservative, and evangelical voters mobilized by issues such as the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. In Missouri, the incumbent Democrat Claire McClaskill went down to defeat after losing ground in every rural county compared to her previous two campaigns. In North Dakota and Texas, significant numbers of voters said that the candidates’ position on Kavanaugh was an important factor in their vote, and of those who said this, more than 60 percent voted Republican.

Even where Democrats won big, the “blue wave” is unlikely to wash away the economic, racial, and gender inequalities that long predated Trump and his Tea Party supporters. Suburban liberals tend to be supportive of same-sex marriage, reproductive rights, and equal opportunities for women and racial minorities, but reluctant to tamper with the educational, financial, occupational, and regulatory institutions that perpetuate their advantages in a stratified society.  As Lily Geismer points out, they are especially concerned with preserving higher property values and lower taxes. Thus, while voters in all 7 Congressional districts of the formerly solidly Republican Orange County, CA, elected Democrats, they also voted for an initiative to repeal a gas and diesel tax designed to support public transportation (an initiative that failed statewide) and against a measure to make housing more affordable.

Nevertheless, the elections show that people’s views can change and that we should not write off everyone who voted for Trump or whose anxieties about social and economic change have fanned their racist or sexist biases. We will never win over hardcore racists or misogynists, but in many people, racial and gender prejudices coexist with a more general endorsement of fairness, and their biases can be overcome — or at least neutralized — by the kind of persuasive efforts that so many candidates and progressive activists put into this election. As evidence, consider Georgia, where gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams – a Black woman – did better among college-educated white women than Hilary Clinton did in 2016, winning 43 percent of their vote, compared to the mere 34 percent that Clinton garnered. And although voters in Florida, Idaho, Nebraska, and Missouri elected Republicans, they voted respectively to restore voting rights to an estimated 1.4 million people with prior felony convictions, to expand Medicaid coverage for low-income residents, and to reduce partisan gerrymandering.

Furthermore, while race-baiting, immigration fear-mongering, and hostility to feminism have fired up conservative Republicans, they have moved many Democrats to be more supportive of racial and gender justice than they were in the past. And many people who tolerated racism and sexism in the candidates they voted for in 2016 seem to be rejecting such candidates today. Political scientist Brian Schaffner found that in 2016 a voter’s approval or disapproval of hostile sexism had little predictive power on whether he or she voted for a Republican House candidate. But this November, Schaffner reports, “less-sexist voters punished Republican House candidates in a way they did not in 2016.”

Similarly, while the 2016 Trump campaign benefited from an influx of new white voters mobilized by hostility to immigrants, Blacks, and Muslims, in 2018 the GOP did not win enough new converts on these issues to counter the loss of voters they offended. Evidently the GOP has already cornered the market on racists and misogynists. It is now losing ground among people whose prejudices, while still real, are not so carved in stone.

Stephanie Coontz teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. She also serves as Director of Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families, a non-profit, nonpartisan association of family researchers and practitioners based at the University of Texas at Austin. The author of 7 books on families, marriage, and gender relationships, she has published dozens of articles in the NYT and elsewhere, as well as in scholarly journals such as Journal of Marriage and Family. She is the recipient of CCF’s first and only “Visionary Leadership Award,” The Families & Work Institute’s “Work-Life Legacy” Award, and other awards from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Illinois Council on the Family, and the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts.

Kwanzaa altar


Holidays celebrated when it gets darker earlier – like Diwali, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Christmas – can make people feel part of something larger. Maybe because people love holidays alongside those near and dear and those who may still enjoy being sentimental. Celebrating  holidays reminds us that we are part of a group who share our beliefs. But for some, holidays are  being part of the collective of scrooges and cynics that barely tolerate the lights, songs, and other festive stuff. More importantly, are those who feel lonely and removed from the collective support system, something that feels highly individualized and yet, perhaps paradoxically, is common  during the holidays.

This time of year is when our “belonging” to something larger is paired with highly individualized stories of unique gifts, treasured mementos, and objects symbolizing good and bad things about family, past and present. Here I offer ways that seemingly individualized holiday objects tell us an important collective story about roles and relationships in today’s families, and about social processes that extend beyond any individual family story.

Values Associated with Materialism, Spoiled Kids, and “Good” Parenting are Wrapped Up in Kids’ Gifts

It’s not hard to find buying guides for parents whose children want the latest toys and gadgets. It’s also easy to find online advice columns about how best to give children gifts without spoiling them, giving in to a marketplace filled with inequalities, or damaging our natural world. But what we often escapes our thinking is how social class may influence parents’ gift-giving, and how kids’ well-being can be affected by how they talk with classmates about the presents they received (or did not receive) after winter break.

Sociologist Allison Pugh reminds us that while it’s pretty universal for parents to want to give their kids gifts, sometimes parents give in to their children’s material desires and spend more than they can afford to buy an expensive toy or other object (Pugh calls this symbolic indulgence). Importantly, in these cases, parents are trying to give kids what they need to feel as if they belong. For better or worse, consumer culture powerfully influences parents. But if we only focus on the powerful marketplace, we miss important stories about how parents use holiday gift-giving to help their children fit into a peer culture where status is highly valued and is the currency through which children’s dignity and belonging are fostered. And we may miss  how parents from different economic backgrounds vary in how much they can give their kids the gift of “fitting in.” This sociological finding adds complexity to claims about spoiled kids and materialistic parents.

Annually Displaying Cherished Items from Lost Loved Ones Reflects Family Role Expectations

Saving cherished items is a social act, partially because  decisions to cherish something is shaped by values and experiences we collect interacting with others, and by our perceptions of others’ expectations surrounding those items. When giving talks about my book The Stuff of Family Life, the most common topic in the Q & A sessions afterward is about whether adult children will cherish objects their aging parents want to give them. Sometimes children’s reluctance to be excited about antique holiday ornaments from beloved grandparents is seen as reluctance to be connected to past family. The adult child may not see the ornaments as “stand-ins” for the grandparents, but parents may see them as substitutes for grandparents rather than symbols. To preserve ornaments is to preserve memories of grandparents; to dispose ornaments is also disposing the persons. Adult children are expected to demonstrate family loyalty by desiring the ornaments. This can be hard when adult children’s values about having too much stuff or beliefs that objects are unnecessary for memories of loved ones are stronger than their values about being dutiful to parents.

Less contentiously, sometimes adult children will save holiday objects from parents who passed away because the parent loved them. An annual display of the holiday objects from deceased parents can honor past family influence on present family. A father’s menorah may be displayed during Hanukkah to remind someone of the father; the holiday is the vehicle for that memory even if it is not explicitly celebrated.

Holiday decorations have biographies. They enter our lives, are participants in life transitions, and get lost, broken, or forgotten. They can serve as mementos, whether old things from a grandparent or new things, they are meant to create an imagined future nostalgia, something I discuss in my research on the preservation of private love letters. This means they are meant to be shared with children so they know the origins of their family story.

To “hand down” a cherished holiday object entails decisions about loyalty, memory, and longevity, not to mention the object’s aesthetic beauty (or lack thereof). So, when next you hear about a baby’s first [insert winter holiday item here], remember it is not just about that object. It’s also about expectations that it may be saved for when that “baby” leaves home and needs to figure out whether to cherish or dispose of it, which may require negotiating with others’ expectations about the preservation of those memories in physical form.

Object-Centered Holiday Rituals Help Families Find Stability in a Time of Uncertainty

We live in a time of perceived uncertainty. Our everyday lives are moving fast, news headlines showcase political and economic turmoil, and our family structures are changing. Whether because of family border separations, poverty-inflicted adverse childhood experiences, or estrangement, people from varied political perspectives perceive the family and social life as more precarious than ever.

At the same time, we love rituals that offer stability. We live, however, in a time that historian Elizabeth Pleck describes as post-sentimental – a reaction,  to  over-sentimentalization of holidays and the blues that sometimes accompany them. There is also a desire to be more inclusive about what holidays and rituals may be desirable and best represent the diversity of families who are celebrating. The rituals of gift-giving, displaying or using special objects that appear only during holidays, and expanding the repertoire of “acceptable” holiday objects and their use, all strengthen the claim that we seek rituals to clarify and stabilize our lives. This search for stability can appear via use of old objects symbolizing long-held traditions as well as via new and innovative objects that create new traditions that more accurately tell the story of the varied ways that family life takes place today. In both cases, the objects serve as tools for rituals that provide glue in a climate where stable family life can seem fragile.

How Is This About More Than Just My Family?

Of course, many other ways can symbolize family roles and relationships as they manifest during holiday times, including whether digital gifts are as “real” as physical ones wrapped in shiny paper, whether some gifts violate norms about privacy (are underpants too personal a gift from my in-laws?), or how holiday décor, like any display in the domestic realm, calls to mind gendered division of household labor (do women decorate indoors and men hang the lights outside ?). I am sure you can think of objects in your family that carry deeper meanings this time of year.

Here I showcased a few ways to think about individualized experiences with holiday objects – dilemmas about spending and spoiling, attachment to relatives with or without retaining their possessions, and use of objects in holiday rituals. Holding a holiday candle is never just about the candle. It also is never just about the family that only uses it during the holidays. The candle and the person holding it are about collective topics larger than any of us or our families: the marketplace where candles are made; the collective belief system that the candle represents, the light of someone no longer alive, and the tendency to value rituals as a form of social “glue” in  times of uncertainty and perceived loss of social connectedness. Holidays remind us that our family stories are both private and public. Our unique gifts tell a collective story about today’s families.

Michelle Janning is the Raymond and Elsie Gipson DeBurgh Chair of Social Sciences & Professor and Chair of Sociology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. She celebrates Christmas, and has had trouble throwing away her son’s “Baby’s First Christmas” stocking over the last fourteen years. She researches and teaches about the connection between material culture and family roles and relationships. She is the editor of the 2019 book Contemporary Parenting and Parenthood: From News Headlines to New Research, and the author of The Stuff of Family Life: How our Homes Reflect our Lives (2017) and Love Letters: Saving Romance in the Digital Age (2018). Her work can be perused at