Reposted with permission from the Texas PRC 

Emotion work, or devoting effort toward assessing and managing another person’s emotional needs to support their emotional well-being, is a common dynamic in intimate relationships that helps foster intimacy and closeness between spouses.

Emotion work is generally understood to benefit the well-being of the recipient. However, providing emotion work can be stressful and might undermine the emotion worker’s psychological well-being. Previous research on different-sex couples suggests that emotion work is a gendered process in which women provide more emotion work than men and that women are more concerned with the importance of emotion work within their relationship. For these reasons, emotion work may more strongly undermine psychological well-being for women than for men. Finally, prior research also suggests that when a spouse has depressive symptoms, emotion work may be more stressful.

This brief reports on a recent research study1 which explored the psychological toll of emotion work in contexts often overlooked in family studies, namely same-sex compared with different-sex marriages and marriages in which a spouse has depressive symptoms.

The authors analyze daily experiences data—based on questionnaires completed daily for 10 days—from both spouses in same-sex and different-sex marriages (= 756 cisgender women and men, 378 married couples). Using these data, the authors employ a gender-as-relational perspective in which gendered relationship dynamics reflect one’s own gender in relation to whether one is interacting with a woman or a man. They do so to explore how the association between emotion work and psychological well-being may differ for women and men in same-sex compared with different-sex marriages and to address how having a spouse with elevated depressive symptoms may affect this association.

Key Findings

  • Emotion work appears to negatively affect the worker’s own psychological well-being.
  • The provision of emotion work, in general, is associated with lower levels of well-being for both women and men and in same-sex compared with different-sex marriages, with two important exceptions.
    • The provision of emotion work may be more psychologically taxing when one’s partner is a man, perhaps because men are less likely to be aware of, or to reciprocate, emotion work exchanges.
    • The well-being of women married to women, compared with women married to men, seems to be less negatively affected by emotion work.
  • Whether the emotion worker is in a same-sex or a different-sex marriage, the provision of emotion work seems to undermine psychological well-being more when the spouse:
    • has elevated depressive symptoms or
    • is a man rather than a woman. See figure below.
  • In sum, not only is it more challenging to provide emotion work to a spouse with elevated depressive symptoms or to provide emotion work to a spouse who is a man, it is particularly more challenging when that spouse is a man with elevated depressive symptoms.

Spouses who provide emotion work to a depressed man report the lowest levels of psychological well-being

Emotion workers married to a non-depressed man or a depressed woman also report lower levels of psychological well-being

This figure shows that whether the emotion worker is in a same-sex or different-sex marriage, providing emotion work to a depressed male spouse is the most detrimental to psychological well-being. In addition, doing emotion work for a male spouse, whether he is depressed or not, is detrimental to well-being, as is providing emotion work to a depressed spouse, whether male or female.
Note: The most emotion work = emotion worker reported one standard deviation above the sample mean; the least emotion work = reported one standard deviation below the mean.

Policy Implications

These findings imply that a more nuanced understanding of the marital dynamics that influence the psychological well-being of both partners in a relationship—with potentially different costs and benefits for women and men in same- and different-sex relationships—is needed to ground effective policies and interventions to support couples and their mental health. The strain of emotion work likely takes a toll on marital quality as well as the health behaviors and health of both partners. Moreover, given that emotion work is more taxing if it is given to a male spouse who has depressive symptoms, it is important for mental health professionals to pay more attention to the marital context when treating both the providers and recipients of emotion work.


1Umberson, D., Thomeer, M.B., Pollitt, A.M & Mernitz, S.E. (2020). The psychological toll of emotion work in same-sex and different-sex marital dyads. Journal of Marriage and Family, 82, 1141-1158.

Suggested Citation

Umberson, D., Thomeer, M.B., Pollitt, A.M & Mernitz, S.E. (2020). Emotion work exacts a psychological toll on the emotion worker in both same-sex and different-sex marriages, but the toll is highest when the spouse is a depressed man. PRC Research Brief 5(7). DOI: 10.26153/tsw/9563.


This research was supported by grant R21AG044585 from the National Institute on Aging (awarded to Umberson) and grant P2CHD042849, Population Research Center, and T32HD007081, Training Program in Population Studies, both awarded to the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. This study was also funded in part by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism grant number F32AA025814 (awarded to Pollitt). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health

Debra Umberson (umberson@prc.utexas.eduis a professor of sociology; Christine and Stanley E. Adams, Jr. Centennial Professorship in Liberal Arts; and director of the Population Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin; Mieke Beth Thomeer is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham; at the time of publication Sara Mernitz and Amanda Pollitt were NICHD postdoctoral fellows at the Population Research Center. Amanda Pollitt is now an assistant professor in the department of health sciences at Northern Arizona University. 

Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, Ph.D. is a professor of Psychology and the director of the Children and Parents Lab at the Ohio State University. Dr. Schoppe-Sullivan is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Association for Psychological Science, and the National Council on Family Relations, and a member of the board of the Council on Contemporary Families. Her research focuses on coparenting and father-child relationships. Her website can be found here.

I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Schoppe-Sullivan regarding her recent publication The Best and Worst of Times: Predictors of New Fathers’ Parenting Satisfaction and Stress. The data used in this research come from a longitudinal study, the New Parents Project (NPP), which was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and Ohio State’s Institute for Population Research. The study included 182 dual-earner different-gender couples who were expecting their first child and followed these fathers (and mothers) across their transition to parenthood.

MP: Much of your research includes fathers. Why it is important to include fathers in parenting research?

SS: Ideals about fathers as parents have changed and fathers’ involvement in parenting has increased. Many more men today want to be more involved in parenting than their fathers or grandfathers were. There is also a greater expectation that fathers will be more actively involved in parenting. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to only focus on mothers in parenting research when we have fathers that are spending more time with children and are more invested in building close relationships with them.

MP: One of the key findings in your study was that new fathers—especially those less confident in their romantic relationships—were more satisfied in parenting when mothers used more gate opening behavior. You define maternal gate opening as encouragement by mothers regarding the partner’s parenting. How might mothers exhibit gate opening behaviors?

SS: Gate opening can include proactive behaviors, such as saying, “hey, why don’t you take the baby for the afternoon”. This actively facilitates the father’s involvement. However, more reactive behaviors can also be encouraging, such as positive reinforcement—telling the father he did a good job after changing the baby’s diaper or giving the baby a bath. Mothers can also say things like “wow, the baby really enjoys being with you”. Praising the father to other important people, like grandparents and neighbors, while the father is within earshot can also boost fathers’ confidence.

MP: Even as men become more involved in parenting, mothers are still devoting more time to parenting and related responsibilities. In asking new mothers to increase their gate opening behaviors, are we placing yet another burden on mothers?

SS: Yes, this comes up a lot. In the consideration of maternal gatekeeping, it is important that we don’t place too much of a burden on new mothers and suggest that it is their responsibility to encourage fathers to be more involved. Mothers should never need to take responsibility for getting a father who is not interested or motivated, or who has attributes that result in less desirable parenting behaviors, to be involved in parenting. On the other hand, for many families it is critical for both parents to positively reinforce each other, especially in those very early weeks and months of parenthood. It is important to recognize when your partner, regardless of whether they’re a mother or a father, is doing a good job. I would place more emphasis on positive reinforcement rather than that mothers need to be nagging or pulling unwilling, uninterested dads to be involved, because that isn’t going to be good for the child or family.

MP: How might new parents work together and recognize each other’s anxieties in order to assist each other in the transition to parenthood?

SS: It is a really good idea for expectant couples and new parents to have frequent conversations and check-ins regarding how they are doing and feeling. Often couples may participate in childbirth education classes or go to a hospital to learn how to properly install a car seat. Those things are very important, but they don’t necessarily take the place of facing the emotional and relationship changes that are also happening. So having those conversations are important both before the child is born and afterwards too. A quick “how are you doing?” or “can I help you in any way?” can be useful and help bridge disconnection that can happen when you are focused on your baby and can hardly find time to take a shower.

MP: Your findings suggest that expectant fathers who are more confident in parenting adjust better to parenthood. Do these findings apply to families welcoming a second or third child?

SS: Fathers who already have experience with infants might have an advantage. It is often true that women have had more experience with infants and young children than men have had before becoming parents themselves. So, men who have actively cared for a first child may adjust better to parenting subsequent children.

MP: The results of this paper are from a study of dual-earner, high socioeconomic status families headed by mothers and fathers. Are your findings applicable to other types of families, such as same-sex parent families, or families from different socioeconomic backgrounds?

SS: Looking at most of the findings, they are not terribly specific to fathers only, or only new fathers who are partnered with new mothers. For example, we found that expectant fathers who were more anxious were at risk of experiencing elevated stress postpartum. I really think that would apply to parents in many different circumstances. The finding that entering into parenthood with greater parenting confidence predicts less parenting stress and greater satisfaction would also likely hold across different populations of expectant and new parents. There is also evidence that gatekeeping occurs in same-sex couples too. Therefore, many of the factors that we examined—anxiety, parenting cofidence, gatekeeping—may be fairly universal influences on adjustment to parenthood.

Madeline is a recent graduate from the Ohio State University and will be beginning her studies in Developmental Psychology at the University of Missouri’s graduate school this fall.

Image by TuendeBede from Pixabay

Parenthood is a beautiful yet immensely stressful endeavor. What is less understood is how LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer) individuals fare in their experience of parenthood, and how this endeavor affects their health and well-being (note that these individuals are referred to as “queer”—an umbrella term for sexual and gender minorities in the following text for simplicity). To celebrate pride month, we share the findings of our research on the health and well-being of queer parents.

Generally speaking, parents tend to experience more stress and report worse health than those without children in part due to the emotional, physical, and financial stress of childrearing. In particular, compared to heterosexual parents, queer parents may experience more stress deriving from higher levels of discrimination experienced in daily interaction and social institutions such as adoption agencies, school systems, and health services. Lesser known is how queer parents fare in comparison to their childless peers. Additionally, queer parents who are people of color (POC) may experience even more stress resulting from racial discrimination than their white peers, adding to their plight as parents and queer people. However, the health and well-being of racial minority queer parents has received relatively little attention in both academic research and public media.

Our study, recently published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, compared two main health outcomes — mental well-being and smoking— between parents and non-parents for a group of gay and lesbian adults. Based on respondents’ self-reported information—whether their gender identity (i.e., male, female, transgender) corresponds with their birth sex (i.e., individuals whose assigned birth sex is the same as their gender identity are hereafter referred to as “cisgender” adults), we analyzed three subgroups: cisgender gay men, cisgender lesbian women, and transgender gay/lesbian adults. We used data from the 2010 Social Justice and Sexuality Project, a survey of racially diverse sexual and gender minority adults residing in all 50 US states and Puerto Rico.

Overall, our results suggest that parents and non-parents have different health outcomes. This finding further depends on the gender identity of these gay and lesbian adults. In the analysis on current smoking status, we found that among cisgender gay men, fathers were more likely to be current smokers than non-parents. We identified a few potential explanations from prior work. First and foremost, cisgender gay fathers experience substantial stress related to their gay father status. In U.S society, parenthood is still considered to be based on a heteronormative union between a cisgender man and a cisgender woman. In this cisgender heterosexual union, women continue to undertake the majority of child care, even though men have picked up more childrearing work over the past few decades. Furthermore, cisgender gay fathers may be more visibly out than cisgender gay non-fathers. Taken together, the juxtaposition of sexual minority identity and fatherhood status challenges people’s conventional understanding of families and parents and thus can exposes gay fathers to more discrimination and stress in daily life. For instance, some cisgender gay fathers may experience more stress due to the limited legal protections that allow them to negotiate non-residential co-parental arrangements and interact with their children. As for why cisgender gay fathers smoked more but did not report worse mental well-being than cisgender gay non-parents or cisgender lesbian adults, it is likely related to the fact that men are more likely to self-regulate stress through externalized behaviors such cigarette smoking compared to women.

In the analysis on mental well-being, which was based on four questions assessing how people felt happy and hopeful, we found that among gay and lesbian transgender people, parents appear to have better mental health than those without children. This finding echoes prior work on the resilience of transgender parent families—for example, transgender parents are able to adopt more fluid gender norms and facilitate more support for family members. In addition, prior research has found that in general, transgender adults tend to have worse health than cisgender adults. In our sample, transgender gay/lesbian adults also reported worse mental health than cisgender gay and lesbian adults. When we compared all six subgroups in our sample (i.e., parents and non-parents from three gender identity groups), we found that transgender gay/lesbian nonparents also had worse mental well-being than their cisgender childless peers. In sum, this finding also suggests that transgender gay/lesbian non-parents may experience excessive stress that makes them particularly vulnerable to deteriorating mental health.

Our research sample is mostly composed of racial and/or ethnic minorities. Thus, our results may reflect the unique experience of gay/lesbian parents of color as a result of their multiple marginalized identities. A focus on queer people of color is particularly important as LGBTQ populations are more racially diverse than the general population. The mass media industry also seems to have taken note of this demographic change. For example, ‘Sesame Street’ featured two seemingly inter-racial gay fathers (a Latino father and a white father) along with their daughter Mia, played by a Latina girl in an episode aired recently for Pride Month—the first time that this iconic Children’s television show has included a queer parent family of color in its 51-year history.

To celebrate pride month, we share our paper, which highlights the unique experiences of LGBTQ parents—how their sexual and gender statuses shape their health and well-being relative to their LGBTQ childless peers. We hope that our research can help policy makers recognize the challenges queer families face and make deliberate efforts to support these families and their rich communities. For researchers, we encourage you to continue to further examine queer parenthood. For media producers who are important curators of content for future generations, we are looking forward to more representations of queer parent families that can help build a more inclusive society for us all.

Zhe (Meredith) Zhang is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Sociology at Rice University. Follow her @zhezhang. Kiana Wilkins is a doctoral student in the department of Sociology at Rice University. Follow her @kianawilkins.

Reposted with permission from the Harvard Business Review.

The arrival of Covid-19 vaccines marks the beginning of the end of the pandemic, but it will likely be months before the risk of contracting the coronavirus subsides and society returns to some semblance of normality. The end is in sight, but in many ways, Americans find themselves right back where they started.

The pandemic has been hard on everyone, but especially on caregivers. The loss of childcare options and in-person schooling combined with a lack of adequate policies providing paid leave and job flexibility resulted in a crisis of care and unprecedented work-family conflict. The loss of these care supports has been particularly consequential for mothers’ careers.

In March 2020, unemployment rates for men and women age 16 and over were indistinguishable — 4.4% for men and 4.4% for women. By April, once shutdowns went into effect and schools and childcare centers were closed, the unemployment rate for women rose to 16.1%, while for men it increased to 13.6%. Among different-sex couples who remained employed in remote-eligible jobs, research shows that paid work hours declined particularly sharply for mothers of children under age 12. Although the gender gap in employment subsided over the summer of 2020, a large unemployment spike among women age 20 and over occurred in September, especially for those in their 30s and 40s — which was likely attributed to the start of the school year.

As Fathers Take on More Childcare, Mothers Take on More Paid Labor

Many scholars and commentators have called upon fathers to increase their domestic contributions to mitigate the negative effects of the pandemic on mothers’ employment. Our new study, published in Gender, Work & Organization, confirms that in families where fathers do a greater share of childcare, mothers were far less likely to suffer negative employment outcomes in the early days of the pandemic. For the remainder of the pandemic and beyond, fathers who increase the time they spend engaging in childcare can likely alleviate mothers’ burdens and protect their careers.

How parents of young children divided care at home prior to the pandemic was a strong predictor of labor market outcomes in April. Using data collected on 989 parents in different-sex relationships in late April 2020, we found that among mothers doing nearly all (80–100%) of the care of young children prior to the pandemic, one in two (50%) voluntarily left their job or reduced hours in paid work. Increases in fathers’ shares of childcare drastically reduced the likelihood that mothers would experience negative employment outcomes. When childcare was shared equally prior to the pandemic (i.e., fathers did 40–60% of childcare), the probability that mothers voluntarily left jobs or reduced work hours decreased to 15% — a similar probability as fathers (11%). The average drop in work hours for working mothers of young children during the early pandemic was just over three hours per week. For every 20% increase in fathers’ shares of childcare, mothers’ time in paid labor increased by three hours per week.

As previously reported, U.S. fathers’ shares of childcare increased during the early days of the pandemic, and a significant number of couples moved away from conventional arrangements where mothers were responsible for the majority of childcare. Given that women in partnerships with egalitarian childcare arrangements are less likely to reduce their labor force participation, fathers’ efforts to increase their domestic contributions may have somewhat protected mothers’ jobs during the early pandemic — a sobering thought given how many mothers left or lost their jobs. Still, increases in fathers’ domestic contributions were incredibly modest — the prevalence of egalitarian arrangements increased by less than 10 percentage points according to mothers’ reports — indicating that many more men can step up and alleviate some of the burdens on their partners.

Balancing the Division of Labor Is Just One Part of the Solution

Asking mothers and fathers to solve the problem of the pandemic on their own by reordering their divisions of labor will not solve the problem of work schedules that are incompatible with children’s school schedules and care needs. A poll sponsored by the American Psychological Association found that parents reported significantly higher levels of stress during the early days of the pandemic than non-parents. Much of this stress appears to have stemmed from the loss of care supports and inadequate policy responses to parents’ work-family conflict. Our research shows that more than half of parents were using nonparental care (daycare centers, home-based care, grandparents, etc.) prior to the pandemic, but only 3% had their children in the care of others by the end of April.

Our findings confirm that the loss of care supports — in-person schooling most especially — was associated with negative employment outcomes for mothers during the early days of the pandemic. We found that among families using full-time daycare prior to the pandemic or who bore responsibility for creating or sourcing homeschool learning content early in the pandemic, mothers were at significant risk of dropping out of the labor force or reducing work hours. A large proportion of parents (at least half) reported assisting their children with homeschooling in the spring of 2020, and parents agree it was mothers who were doing the vast majority of this new domestic task.

The Solution Must Be Structural

This crisis of care requires structural solutions that go beyond the household. Opening schools and daycares safely is ideal but still not feasible in many places. Structural solutions to facilitate fathers’ domestic labor appears to be the path forward, but these solutions must be supported by business and government.

Increases in father engagement appear to be driven by the ability to be home during the pandemic. Extending work-family policies that facilitate men’s time at home — including telecommuting, schedule flexibility, and paid leave — is key to fathers alleviating some of the burdens on their partners. Though many jobs have become remote positions during the pandemic, it is important to note that telecommuting alone will not facilitate greater involvement among fathers.

The number of fathers working remotely during the pandemic has increased dramatically; our estimates show that the number of partnered fathers working exclusively from home increased from 9% to 41% from March to April 2020. Nevertheless, the increase in fathers’ domestic contributions have lagged because remote work is not necessarily flexible work. Indeed, pre-pandemic data shows that when working from home is mandated by employers, fathers actually do less housework than those who do not work from home or those who work from home for personal reasons. To facilitate fathers’ domestic engagement moving forward, businesses must offer employees as much schedule flexibility as possible.

Paid time off is also important. For too long, American workers have been overworked. Compared with parents in other countries, U.S. parents work many more hours with far less support. Among 38 OECD countries, U.S. workers rank 10th highest in annual paid work hours but last in paid time off. Though the CARES Act provided paid leave for primary caregivers, the new round of stimulus passed by Congress in December did not. Not only must new legislation provide leave, but provisions must explicitly include fathers. Using the general language of “primary caregiver” by default implies that only one parent will be responsible for caregiving and increases the likelihood that mothers will be the ones pushed to take the leave.

Ensuring that the remainder of the pandemic does not further erode the well-being of mothers and other primary caregivers means getting men to do more. Moms have borne the brunt of this pandemic. Dads, it’s your turn to step up.

Daniel L. Carlson is Associate Professor of Family and Consumer Studies at the University of Utah. He studies the causes and consequences of couples’ divisions of labor. He is Deputy Editor of the Journal of Marriage and Family and member of the board of directors for the Council of Contemporary Families. Richard J. Petts is a Professor of Sociology at Ball State University. His research focuses on family inequalities, with a specific emphasis on parental leave, father involvement, and workplace flexibility as policies and practices that can reduce gender inequality, promote greater work-family balance, and improve family well-being ( Joanna Pepin is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University at Buffalo. She studies inequality as it is woven through couple and family relations. Her research focuses on the social paradox in which gains in women’s financial resources are often ineffective at reducing gender inequality within families.

Reposted with permission from the Texas Population Research Center 

Approximately one-third of women and one-fifth of men aged 60 and over in the U.S. live alone and are at heightened risk of social isolation due to social distancing and other safety precautions introduced to curtail the spread of COVID-19.

A national study conducted in 2015 found that among older adults, in-person contact was associated with lower levels of depression, but telephone or electronic contact were not. Research is mixed about whether social distancing due to COVID-19 leads to older people feeling more lonely. For example, one study found that in February 2020, older Americans who lived alone reported more loneliness than older adults who lived with others. However, there was no increase in reports of loneliness during the stay-at-home orders. Another study of Germans found that older adults reported less loneliness than younger adults, regardless of whether they lived alone or with others during the pandemic.

This brief reports on a recent study which examines how daily positive emotions (gratitude and contentment) and negative emotions (loneliness, sadness, and stress) vary based on whether people live alone during the pandemic and who they encountered throughout the day.

The authors surveyed 226 people aged 69 and older living in the Austin, Texas area during May and June 2020. The older adults reported on their living situation, social contact (in person, by phone, electronically) with different social partners, and emotions during the morning, afternoon and evening the prior day. Of those surveyed, 81 lived alone and 145 lived with spouses, family or other people. Nearly all the older adults were taking safety precautions, sheltering in place and avoiding contact with people outside their home.

Key Findings

  • Older adults who live alone were, unsurprisingly, less likely to see others in person or to receive or provide help than those who lived with others. Contrary to expectations, those who live alone did not report more time on the phone or using electronic communication, such as text, email, or use social media.
  • Older adults who live alone experienced more positive emotions when they saw someone in person compared to those who had no in-person contact (see Figure, left panel).
  • In contrast, older adults who live alone experienced more negative emotions, especially loneliness, when they talked to someone on the phone (see Figure, right panel). This may be because talking to others by phone may remind people of their feelings of being alone during the pandemic.
  • Older adults who live alone were more likely to have contact with friends, rather than family.
  • Among older adults who live with others, contact with others – in person or by phone – did not affect positive or negative emotions throughout the day (see Figure).
Note: See published paper for confidence intervals for all results.

Policy Implications

These findings suggests that in-person contact may confer unique benefits to positive emotional well-being. In other words, technologically-mediated communication cannot replace the physical presence of others. Those who want to support emotional well-being in older adults who live alone with in-person contact should do so while following COVID-19 safety guidelines, such as limited contact with other individuals who are also sequestering, keeping that contact at a distance of at least 6 feet, visiting outside and mask wearing. Because phone calls for older adults who live alone may increase feelings of loneliness, older adults may want to schedule phone calls for days they may also see a friend in person from a distance and while wearing a face mask. Friends and relatives who telephone also might set up the next phone call when they finish to remind the older adult of ongoing contact.


Fingerman, K.L., Ng, Y.T., Zhang, S., Britt, K., Colera, G., Birditt, K.S., & Charles, S.T. (2020). Living alone during COVID-19: Social contact and emotional well-being among older adults. Journals of Gerontology Series B: Social Science. Published online ahead of print.

Suggested Citation

Fingerman, K.L., Ng, Y.T., Zhang, S., Britt, K., Colera, G., Birditt, K.S., & Charles, S.T. (2021). Older adults who live alone benefited from seeing people in person during the pandemic but not necessarily by talking on the phone. PRC Research Brief 6(1). DOI: 10.26153/tsw/11348.


This study was supported by grants R01AG046460 and P30AG066614 from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and grant P2CHD042849 awarded to the Population Research Center (PRC) at The University of Texas at Austin by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institute on Aging or the National Institutes of Health.

Karen L. Fingerman ( is a professor of human development and family sciences a faculty research associate in the Population Research Center, and director of research of the Center on Aging and Population Sciences, all at The University of Texas at Austin; Yee To Ng and Shiyang Zhang are PhD students in human development and family sciences at UT Austin; Katherine Britt is PhD student in nursing at UT Austin; Gianna Colera is a master’s student in professional counseling at Texas State University; Kira S. Birditt is a research associate professor at the Survey Research Center and director of the Aging and Biopsychosocial Innovations Program at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research; and Susan T. Charles is a professor of psychological science and nursing science at the University of California at Irvine.


Recent discussions have focused on loan forgiveness as a remedy for growing student loan debt in the United States. How have their loans affected – or not affected – students’ lives? What do young adults say they would do if their loans were forgiven?

College costs are rising, and declining state government investments in higher education mean that the burden of those high costs has increasingly fallen on the shoulders of individuals. In 1980, individuals paid roughly 30% of the cost of higher education, with states or the federal government covering 70%, but by 2010 government covered just half the cost, leaving 50% of costs to students and their families. While the Federal Pell grant program (targeted to low-income students) was greatly expanded during the Great Recession, allowing more students to draw upon those funds, it was not enough to make up for state budget cuts in direct higher education funding. These cuts caused tuition rates to grow over the past several decades at rates far outpacing the growth in family incomes. Meanwhile, government aid has increasingly shifted from outright grants to loans. In the early 1970s a majority of government funding came in the form of grants, while in recent years the majority is in loans that must be repaid, and cannot even be discharged through bankruptcy.

Thus, over the past few decades more students have owed more money to the government or private lenders after graduating from college. In 1990, 4-year college graduates of public universities owed an average of $8,200 (or just over $16,000 in 2020 dollars.) By 2000 the load of graduating seniors had nearly doubled to $15,100 (around $22,700 in 2020 dollars), and by 2020 it had doubled again to just over $30,000! The number of students at 4-year public colleges taking out loans to finance their degrees has also grown, from fewer than half (46%) of 1993 graduates, to about two-thirds (66%) of 2016 graduates. These loans are particularly hard to pay off for students and graduates with lower family wealth, especially affecting Black borrowers.

Meanwhile, student debt increasingly serves as a strong disincentive for marriage and childbearing, and although in general, college-educated individuals are more likely to marry than less-educated Americans, many hesitate to do so if they or their prospective partners still have college loans to pay off. Indeed, in the study we report upon below, almost half (47%) of undergraduate students told us people should delay having children and almost a quarter (23%) thought they should delay getting married if they have student loan debt to repay.

In a study published in Sociological Inquiry“Social Norms and Expectations about Student Loans and Family Formation,” we report findings from a survey we conducted in 2017, and in new findings calculated especially for this CCF briefing paper, we report on a follow-up survey we conducted in 2020.

We first surveyed 2,990 undergraduate students – including 1,988 (66.5%) with student loans – at two regional public universities in the U.S., one in the Northeast and one in the Southeast, in early 2017. Of the 671 who reported they were about to graduate, 504 agreed to take a follow-up survey and provided an email address. Three and a half years after graduation, in November and December 2020, many of those email addresses no longer worked, but we were able to contact 194 (almost 40%) of those respondents, 142 of whom had taken out loans. Statistical tests indicated that these students were not significantly different from the original group of graduating seniors in terms of percent reporting student loans or average amount of loans in the first survey, racial distribution, or gender.

In 2017, we asked students who had taken loans to tell us what they expected the loans to do for them. In 2020, we asked a similar set of questions to the subset follow-up sample to find out if their expectations matched reality.

Anticipated and Actual Effects of Loans

Three and a half years after graduation, only 13 people in the sub-sample (9%) had paid off their loans completely. Yet in some respects the reality of their lives after graduation was better than they had anticipated back in 2017. While 55% of students with loans originally told us they anticipated living with parents or roommates after graduation or working at jobs they did not like in order to pay off loans, only 41% percent of the graduates with loans had ended up using these strategies during the time between graduation and our 2020 follow-up interviews. And while almost 32% of students had anticipated having to delay children until their loans were paid off, only 20% of the graduates with loans whom we surveyed reported actually doing this, while 18% said they were delaying marriage.

Nevertheless, this is a relatively high proportion of postponed marriages and children, and in other respects, even before the Covid-19 crisis, the reality of post-graduate life was more difficult for these students than they had anticipated back in 2017. While more than half the students we interviewed in 2017 had expected that the loans they took out to get their degree would ensure them a better job, only 21 percent of graduates in our 2020 follow-up reported they had been able to get a better job because of their degree. Nearly one-fifth (18%) of graduates reported they could not buy a house because of their loans, while 22% said they had foregone or delayed graduate school because of their loan debt. Only 12-13% of undergraduates had anticipated either one of these possibilities.

Figure 1: Anticipated and Reported Effects of Loan Debt, 2017 (College Students, N=1950) and 2020 (2017 College Graduates, N=142).

Compounding Disadvantages in the Covid Generation

Not only do many of the young adults in our study have loans holding them back, but the Covid-19 pandemic has compounded the delayed launch into adulthood and family formation for many. In the 2020 study we asked graduates, with and without loans, how the pandemic was affecting their lives. Just over 40% of 2017 graduates reported being fired, furloughed, or having their hours reduced because of the pandemic. To deal with the loss of income, 7% of this group had moved back home with their parents, and another 9% who had been planning to move out of the parental home had changed their minds. Fifteen percent delayed buying a house, 11% said they couldn’t pay rent or other regular bills, and 20% said they had had to get financial help from family.

The pandemic also affected romantic relationships and family formation. Seven of the graduates in our follow-up survey reported putting off a legal marriage and wedding, while another 3 got married legally while putting off a wedding party. Thirteen reported breaking up with a romantic partner because of Covid disagreements, or because the distance and stress got to be too much. On the other hand, some relationships accelerated because of the pandemic: 5 reported getting married sooner than originally planned. Another 6 moved in with a romantic partner sooner than expected, but past research has shown that such behavior actually reduces a couple’s chance of marrying at a later point.

The impact of the pandemic on fertility plans was especially noteworthy. Fifteen of our informants reported putting off having children because of the pandemic, with 3 of them delaying fertility treatments. Another 6 decided to have fewer children, or to not have children at all, because of the pandemic. None had children sooner than expected.

What would students do differently if their loans were forgiven?

Reports of what students and graduates would do if their loans were forgiven were consistent across the two surveys. Almost three-fourths said they would put the money in savings, and more than half said they would save up to buy a house. Among graduates, two-thirds said they would use that money to pay off other debt, and almost 53% would save for retirement. About 21% said they would get married sooner and 19% said they would have children sooner.

Figure 2: What would college students (N=1942, data collected in 2017) and 2017 graduates (N=129, data collected in 2020) do differently if loans were forgiven 1 year after graduation / 1 year after survey?


Our study suggests that the growing burden of student loan debt, especially in conjunction with the economic recession caused by the pandemic, is influencing multiple arenas of young adults’ lives, preventing many from forming the families they would like to have, closing opportunities for continuing investment in post-graduate education or training, restricting savings for emergencies and retirement and the ability to pay off other debt, and acting as a drag on the broader economy in many other ways.


The authors thank Jazmyn Edwards, Stephanie Pruitt, and Kenneshia Williams for their research assistance on this project, and Stephanie Coontz for editing this research brief. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant numbers 1947603 and 1947604, a Rutgers University-Camden Faculty Research and Creative Activities Award, a Rutgers University Research Council Grant, and a University of North Carolina at Greensboro New Faculty Mentoring Program Second Year Grant, Faculty Research Grant, and Faculty First Award Grant, as administered by the Office of Sponsored Programs.

Arielle Kuperberg is Associate Professor of Sociology and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the editor of this blog. Follow her on twitter at @ATKuperberg. Joan Maya Mazelis is the author of Surviving Poverty: Creating Sustainable Ties among the Poor (NYU Press 2017). She is an associate professor of sociology in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice at Rutgers University–Camden, an affiliated scholar at Rutgers–Camden’s Center for Urban Research and Education, a Faculty Affiliate at the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Research on Poverty, and co-leader of the New Jersey/Philadelphia chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, an organization of scholars that connect their research to legislatures, civic organizations, and the media. Follow her @JoanieMazelis.


Reposted with permission from Newsweek, where this article was first published on May 9, 2021

In our nation, babies are born into a system of well-child care—a series of planned health care visits designed to protect their health from day one through age six. But what about their mothers? No such system exists for them after the postpartum visit.

Our fragmented health care system offers no bridge across the chasm that separates maternity care and ongoing primary care. This chasm harms many mothers; for Black and Indigenous people, the gap in care too often means the difference between life and death. The U.S. maternal mortality rate is the highest among affluent nations, and Black and Indigenous mothers are 3.5 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than are white mothers. One-third of these deaths occur between one week and one year postpartum (in the chasm); and for every maternal death, there are at least 100 near misses. When complications, such as hypertension and diabetes, are not followed by primary care after pregnancy, chronic illness can develop.

We write as scientists, clinicians and advocates to argue for an emergency plan to fill the gaping hole in women’s health care.

Pregnancy care should be conceptualized not as a singular event or series of events, but as a key source of information for women’s health care prevention and treatment needs across the life course. Creating a bridge to support such health care could also help to address the persistent disrespect and racism commonly experienced by Black mothers in health care settings.

Pregnancy is a stress test on women’s bodies, revealing clues about underlying and future health. Complications such as gestational diabetes, hypertensive disorders of pregnancy, pre-eclampsia, depression and substance use disorder affect up to a quarter of pregnant people. These conditions play an important role in women’s health in the year after birth and are harbingers of future chronic illness that can be prevented or ameliorated.

Gestational hypertension and preeclampsia, for example, double the risk for heart disease and stroke, the leading causes of death in women aged 35-54. Gestational diabetes, which occurs in about 10 percent of pregnancies in the U.S. annually, raises the likelihood of type 2 diabetes sevenfold in the decade after pregnancy. About one-third of the 10 million adult women with type 2 diabetes first had gestational diabetes, which could have opened the door to effective prevention. Yet for most the door does not open; only 20-50 percent receive the recommended testing and preventive care in the years following pregnancy. The physical, emotional and economic burden of type 2 diabetes (estimated at $327 billion per year) and all chronic illness over one’s life course is enormous for families and society.

What do we have to do to create a system of health care for mothers that mirrors well-child care?

The American Rescue Plan Act, with its child tax credit, investments in child care and allowance for states to choose to extend Medicaid coverage to pregnant mothers from 60 days to one year postpartum, is a step in the right direction. But there is much more that could be done.

Health systems could be held accountable to metrics that track the racism and disrespect in maternal health care. High-touch models of care (doulas, midwives) offered during pregnancy could be extended to the full postpartum year to assure follow up of complications and connection to primary care. Medicaid for pregnancy-eligible women could be extended to 365 days (instead of the current 60 days) and all insurers could manage integration between maternity and primary care providers. Reforms in electronic medical record systems could promote transfer of pregnancy experiences to future providers. Research funding could support the development of evidence-based approaches to assure that women stay connected to preventive care beyond pregnancy and the postpartum period, across their life course.

These and other changes are laid out in a recently released national agenda co-created by a collaboration of women with lived experience, clinicians, researchers, advocates, policy-makers and health system leaders.

Given that women bear the burdens of pregnancy and child birth, we would do well to honor mothers by establishing policies and practices that build a bridge between maternal care and well-coordinated primary care for mothers. Individuals, for their part, can voice support for legislation and funding initiatives that invest in insurance coverage and continuous, coordinated care that mothers, particularly Black and Indigenous mothers, need long after babies are born.

Lois McCloskey is associate professor of community health sciences and director of the Center of Excellence in Maternal and Child Health at Boston University School of Public Health. Ann Celi is associate physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Chloe Bird is a senior sociologist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

By now it is well-known that Covid-19 exacerbates pre-existing economic and health inequities, something clearly shown in the disproportionate rates of mortality, unemployment, and food and housing insecurity in African American communities during this pandemic. This paper reports new research on another disparity that has been amplified by the pandemic — exposure of African American youths to community violence, often resulting in symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Analysis of the behaviors that protect youth from experiencing such violence suggests that educators and psychologists need to rethink their understanding and treatment of PTSD in this population.

Even before the pandemic, as many as 97 percent of African American youth in some highly disinvested urban communities had witnessed at least one incident of community violence over the course of adolescence. But in 2020, the U.S. saw the largest single one-year surge in homicides since the government began compiling such records, with Chicago experiencing a 37 percent increase in murders during the first half of 2020 compared to the first half of 2019.  These increases have disproportionately impacted Black communities. Violence exposure, compounded by elevated levels of deaths and hospitalization of loved ones, economic loss, food insecurity, and residential instability, has placed Black children and adolescents at the epicenter of loss during the pandemic. As students begin to transition back to in-person learning, school officials must be ready to respond to the effects of loss and trauma by relying on trauma-informed and trauma-responsive practices, rather than punitive discipline practices.

For African American children and teens, the recent increase in community violence is compounded by the stress of the pandemic, rise in hate crimes, and disproportionate exposure to incidents of police violence towards African American men and women, diminishing their sense of safety.  This makes even more urgent the need for research that can help us understand and minimize the long-term negative effects of exposure to community violence on African American youth.

It is important to put this violence into perspective. Research with nationally representative samples of adolescents demonstrates that 85% of African American adolescents show little to no engagement in delinquent and risky behavior, with only 7% engaging in high levels of delinquent behavior and only 6% showing gang affiliation. Among all Americans, violent crime is clustered in areas of concentrated and severe poverty, but due to systemic racism and social stratification, African American Americans disproportionately reside in these areas. In some urban areas, for example, African Americans are almost four times more likely than other residents to live in neighborhoods where the poverty rate is 40% or higher.

Furthermore, engagement in violent behavior is not widespread even among African American youth in such severely deprived neighborhoods. Sociological research shows that violent crime in urban communities is concentrated in a very small network of individuals linked to one another by co-engagement in violent crimes. In Chicago, for example, 70 percent of all non-fatal shootings occur in networks comprising less than 6 percent of Chicago’s total population. But the activity of this small network affects everyone living in the neighborhood, so the impact of violent crime by a small number of residents on African American youth’s well-being is widespread.

Individuals who have been exposed to community violence often develop symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), including a cluster of symptoms that characterize physiological hyperarousal. Hyperarousal symptoms are rooted in the body’s neurophysiological response to stress, and an important component of a hyperarousal response is hypervigilance, which refers to a state of extreme alertness and awareness of one’s surroundings.  Hypervigilance enhances our ability to detect and react to threatening stimuli in our environment, while hyperarousal helps mobilize our body’s resources to maximize survival in the face of danger. Psychologists agree that these are appropriate and advantageous responses to an emergency.

However, hyperarousal and hypervigilance that persist after the emergency has passed have traditionally been considered to be debilitating and maladaptive. For youth exposed to community violence, posttraumatic hyperarousal can lead youth to overreact to perceived threats.  As such, educators and psychologists see such reactions as disruptive behaviors or hyperactivity that youths must be taught to overcome. But is it possible that maintaining a fairly constant level of hyperarousal and hypervigilance in the context of persistent community violence could actually be protective rather than maladaptive?

That is certainly how some young men see it themselves. For example, in 2012 and 2013, Smith and Patton (2016) conducted in-depth interviews with 37 young African American men in Baltimore, ages 18 –24, who had experienced the homicide death of a loved one. All the young men they interviewed were experiencing symptoms of PTSD, with hypervigilance the most frequently reported symptom.  However, the young men themselves described their constant hypervigilance as a potent coping strategy to stay safe in adverse and unpredictable contexts. They called it “being on point.” Is it possible that behaviors psychologists have found to be pathological or debilitating for middle-class patients in relatively secure situations may be adaptive ways of navigating dangerous and unpredictable environments? Could hyperarousal and hypervigilance actually reduce an individual’s exposure to community violence?

In a new study, my colleagues and I sought to answer these questions.  We collected survey data over a one-year period with a group of African American male high school students living in under-resourced urban communities in Chicago.  We wanted to know if physiological hyperarousal symptoms, particularly hypervigilance, predicted less exposure to community violence over time. We also wanted to examine the impact of aggressive vs. avoidant responses to threats. The boys in our study reported on how frequently they witnessed community violence or were direct victims of community violence, how frequently they experienced physiological hyperarousal symptoms, and how frequently they engaged in aggressive behavior.

Here is what we found: First, 85 percent of the boys in our study reported experiencing symptoms of physiological hyperarousal, with hypervigilance (being overly careful or frequently checking to see who and what is around you) being the most frequently reported symptom. These findings are consistent with research on African American adult men.

Second, we found that higher levels of hypervigilance predicted less likelihood of witnessing community violence one year later, after controlling for initial levels of witnessing violence.  Hypervigilance may help youth to pick up on clues that an area is unsafe or that a violent incident between others is imminent. For African American boys in the current study, being vigilant, or even overly careful may have allowed them to avoid potentially dangerous situations or locations where violence might occur in their communities.

Surprisingly, however, such cautious avoidance tactics, while lessening the amount of community violence the boys witnessed, did not necessarily protect them from experiencing violent victimization. We found that higher levels of physiological hyperarousal predicted lower levels of victimization over time only when boys also reported using high levels of physical aggressionHyperarousal was protective only at high levels of physical aggression.

Earlier studies have shown that physiological hyperarousal leads some young adult men to utilize aggressive means of self-protection and proactive posturing to reduce perceptions of vulnerability.  Such behavior can be counter-productive in some settings, but our findings show that in unsafe and under-served communities, boys who are physiologically prepared via hyperarousal to respond to direct threats of violence, and who project a strong likelihood of responding aggressively to such threats, are more likely to avoid being victims of violence.

These findings raise an important question about the many interventions and treatment efforts that focus on reducing hyperarousal and other PTSD symptoms. Are we undermining or actually disabling needed survival strategies through our intervention efforts? And if so, will the young people we serve see our efforts as relevant for their daily life experiences?

It is important to note that the responses shown by boys in the current study are not unique to the African American experience, but rather are rooted in the context of traumatic stress.  Heightened, and even sustained, levels of physiological arousal and hypervigilance are shown by individuals exposed to other traumatic stressors, such as sexual assaultcombat, and natural disasters.  What is different about community violence exposure is that the trauma exposure is an ongoing and recurring threat, as opposed to existing only in the pastIn this context, “post” traumatic stress symptoms may be a realistic response to “continuous” traumatic threat.

To work towards more effective and contextually relevant solutions for African American boys exposed to community violence, we need interventions that are sensitive to our finding that hyperarousal, hypervigilance, and aggressive responses to perceived threats may be protective in contexts of traumatic and unpredictable stressors. Rather than trying to eliminate these symptoms altogether, we might do better to focus on increasing youths’ mindful awareness about what triggers these reactions and in what circumstances they are likely to be protective. Targeted interventions might help youths better distinguish between contexts where these symptoms and behaviors are adaptive (such as in interactions with potential threats in certain areas of their neighborhood) versus where they are not adaptive (such as in a work setting) and teach boys how to use them selectively. To ensure that interventions are relevant to the daily experiences of African American youth, intervention design efforts must utilize community-based participatory research strategies to enlist youth as active partners in a process where their voices and opinions are heard, valued, and honored.

At the systems level, we need a more carefully calibrated approach in settings such as schools, where responses to these behaviors are often punitive and harmful. For example, exclusionary discipline policies are direct predictors of academic underachievement, high school dropout rates, contact with the juvenile and criminal justice systems, and criminal victimization, as well as criminal activity.  Community violence exposure is a health issue, rather than a criminal justice issue.  Given the traumatic nature of exposure to such violence, we need to work to understand what young people have experienced rather than punishing them for how they react to what they have experienced.  And of course, a primary goal of those working to community violence exposure should be to implement racially just policies that focus on economic and social investment in under-resourced communities to eradicate the underlying conditions that heighten violent crime.


The study discussed in this briefing paper is part of the January/February 2021 special issue of the Journal of Applied Development Psychology devoted to highlighting how boys and young men of color successfully adapt to adverse environments, and in particular, how the unique demands of various inhibiting contexts may shape adaptive behaviors through conditional adaptation. I would like to thank the co-authors of the study, Jenny Phan, Suzanna So, and Alvin Thomas.  I would also like to thank Stephanie Coontz for her invaluable assistance and feedback on this briefing paper.

Noni Gaylord-Harden is a Professor of Psychology at Texas A & M University. 

Reprinted with permission from Ms.

The COVID-19 quarantine has been more than an involuntary lockdown for me: It has become an unexpected opportunity to weave memories, priceless recollections that have revealed the patchwork quilt that has been holding —all along—my feminist consciousness. Engaging in this active recollection of magnified moments has been validating and soothing as a feminist, and as a never-married woman living alone.

In her analysis of advice books for women, feminist sociologist Arlie Hochschild (1994) identifies magnified moments as:

“episodes of heightened importance, either epiphanies, moments of intense glee or unusual insight, or moments in which things go intensely but meaningfully wrong. In either case, the moment stands out; it is metaphorically rich, unusually elaborate and often echoes throughout the book.”

In the unwritten book of my own life story, these magnified moments have emerged through past conversations with my mother—which took place in the context of everyday life, from childhood to present.

In my memory work, I recall her words in Spanish and offer my most accurate and precise translation in English of these brief, but vivid recollections.

Late 1960s

“Listen, when you grow up you are going to go to school so you can have a good job and don’t have to depend on a man.”

I remember her giving me a stern warning, crying while washing the dishes and talking to me as I stood next to the sink listening attentively. Sobbing, she complained about not being able to go to school or have a paid job. I was 8 or 9, and I had my eyes wide open not knowing what to say or how to console her.

Early 1970s

“No, no, no. Do not put any makeup on her. I think that when she grows up, she going to be like those women who think and write.”

Her words stick with me. She was reacting to my older sister, who was telling me, with an animated voice, to get closer so she can put some makeup on me. I was probably 12 or so.

Mid 1970s

“So what do you think about today’s mass sermon?”

She surprisingly asked me as both of us walked back home after mass on a Saturday afternoon. I was totally clueless about what the readings or sermon was about—probably I was daydreaming in church— and lost in my shy silence I did not know what to say.

She then told me to remember that “the priest is a man; the priest is not God.” I was in secundaria, the equivalent to middle school.

Mid 1970s

“Why did you shave your armpit?! Why did you shave your legs?!”

She yelled at me while scolding me and giving me a warning: “Te vas a hacer esclava del rastrillo“—you are going to become a slave of the razor.

“See?” pointing to her arm pit, and showing me unshaved her legs, and explaining that if nature had given me all that hair, there was a reason for it to be there, and I needed to leave it alone.

Guácala!“—gross! I recall feeling in silence while thinking that something was wrong with her.

Mid 1970s

Soy una sirvienta sin sueldo“—I am a maid with no pay.

I remember my mother so well, complaining while cleaning the house. In my ignorance, I used to ask myself in silence, “But why does she want to get paid? Isn’t that what mothers do?”

Late 1970s

Los esposos y los hijos se acaban a las mujeres“—Husbands and children wear out women.

I heard her say this at least once during casual conversations.

Late 1970s

“May I come with you?!” I animatedly asked her if I could join her as she announced that she was going downtown by herself on a Saturday afternoon.

“No, I want to be alone, I need take a break from all of you and your father.”

She was a full time housewife, raising five children. My father was a man of integrity who worked hard as a carpenter and made the minimum wage.


I left the family home, moved out of town, and eventually migrated to the United States in my attempts to figure out life. I had long distance communication with my mother and father.

Mid 1990s

¡Tus maestras descubrieron el hilo negro!”—Your women teachers just reinvented the wheel!

She told me cracking up and with a playful tone of voice in response to my enthusiasm as I shared with her all of the wonderful things I was learning from my feminist professors in the doctoral program.

“So, how did you know that you were oppressed as a woman?!” I remember asking her with genuine curiosity. She explained that she always wanted to study and have a paid job and it was difficult “just because she I was I woman—sólo por ser mujer.”


“You may know a lot about women, but you know very little about old women.”

Upset, she told me this after I told her that she could no longer live alone and go to the supermarket by herself. She was in her late 80s.


She recalled stories of her adolescent years—in the mid 1940s— when she altered my grandfather’s pants and wore them with pride, without worrying about what others thought of her.

She loved race running and used to play volleyball back then as well—no wonder why her talent as a player of one of the teams in the nursing home where she lived in her late 80s was celebrated by other residents.


Cuando era joven, no me dejaba de los muchachos“—When I was young, I did not let young men mess with me.

With a soft smile, she made this random comment during one of my visits at the nursing home in San Antonio. She was already showing clear signs of dementia, and her comment touched me deeply.

Late February 2020

I can sense her warmth presence next to me, listening attentively and with so much devotion in her eyes. She is listening to a priest at a Catholic church in Austin; she wanted to go to Mass today. She is quiet, incredibly mellow, and shy these days, and she does not talk much, but she is very receptive to affection. She is fragile, walks very slowly and relies on a walker, and always gives me a fresh smile when I come to see her to the nursing home where she lives.

“Do I live here?!”

She asked me with surprise as I dropped her at her nursing home after Mass that day. I have been learning to go with her story.

I already forgot when I stopped identifying as Catholic, but her sign of the cross on my forehead means the world to me, so getting that today was especially meaningful. I expressed my gratitude to her for giving birth to me, today, 60 years ago. I cried tears of joy and gratitude as I walked away.

Early March 2020

The COVID-19 crisis is starting to unfold and the social worker at the nursing home is asking me to stop visiting my mom. From my visits in person every other day, I went to not being allowed to see her, but my sisters and I talk with her via Zoom at least once a week. The coronavirus put some physical distance between us, but her presence feels closer than ever in my life.

My mother is now 94, has dementia and her nursing home in Austin is not far from my home. At times, she does not know if she lives in Mexico or the United States. And I do not know when or if I will ever see her soon, but there is one thing I know for sure: She was the first feminist who ever loved me.

Gloria González-López is a professor of sociology at the University of Texas-Austin and a Public Voices Fellow with the Op Ed Project.

Image by 3D Animation Production Company from Pixabay

In the past 30 years, the percentage of students at 4-year colleges who take out loans to finance their education has grown from less than half to a full two-thirds, and their average debt load – in constant dollars – has nearly doubled. In 2017, researchers asked students what they expected to get from college and how they thought college debt would affect them. In 2020, the researchers asked a subset of those who had graduated how their expectations had matched reality and how their lives would change if their loans were forgiven.

Their findings are summarized in a report, “The Difference Debt Makes: College Students and Grads on How Student Debt Affects Their Life Choices — and What They Would Do Differently if it Were Forgiven,” authored by Arielle Kuperberg of UNC Greensboro and Joan Maya Mazelis of Rutgers University-Camden. The report combines survey results published in Sociological Inquiry with follow-up surveys prepared especially for the Council on Contemporary Families

In some ways, the undergraduates surveyed in 2017 over-estimated the extent to which their college debts would burden them. But in other ways they gained less from the loans they took out than they had expected. Fewer reported being forced to work at jobs they did not like or having to live with parents or roommates to pay off their debts than had anticipated these outcomes back in 2017. But only 21 percent of graduates in the 2020 follow-up reported they had been able to get a better job because of their degree. Nearly one-fifth (18 percent) of graduates reported they could not buy a house because of their loans, while 22 percent said they had foregone or delayed graduate school because of their loan debt.

The combination of college debt and Covid-19 also affected the family decisions of graduates the authors surveyed. Almost one-fifth said they were delaying marriage until their loans were paid off, and 20 percent were delaying children.

Asked what they would do if their loans were forgiven, both the students surveyed in 2017 and the graduates surveyed in 2020 gave similar answers: Almost three-fourths said they would put the money in savings, and more than half said they would save up to buy a house. Among graduates, two-thirds said they would use that money to pay off other debt, and almost 53 percent would save for retirement. About 20 percent said they would get married or have children sooner.

For Further Information

Arielle Kuperberg, Associate Professor of Sociology and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, University of North Carolina at Greensboro @ATKuperberg

Joan Maya Mazelis, Associate Professor of Sociology, Rutgers University–Camden @JoanieMazelis