Photo by Michael_swan via flickr.com CC
Photo by Michael_swan via flickr.com CC

The “traditional family,” many would have us believe, is imperiled by everything from women in the workplace and same-sex couples in the bedroom. What these “traditionalists” fail to name among the various threats is income inequality. As described in research published in the American Sociological Review and discussed on Fortune.com, observed increases in the rate of couples having children before marriage can be explained by changing social landscapes.

It’s no surprise to anyone that the middle-class is shrinking or that finding a job can be a tough gig. Andrew Cherlin, David C. Ribar, and Suzumi Yasutake’s research shows people are more likely to postpone marriage, but not parenting, if they can’t get a job. So, with a distinct shortage of available living-wage jobs and growing income inequality, more and more American families are comprised of unmarried couples with children. As the class system becomes even more polarized, it seems marriage boosters might want to consider a different means to their favored end: reducing inequality.

Frank and Claire Underwood House of Cards Promo

Spoiler alert! This season the popular Netflix series “House of Cards” got a bit more radical. Main characters and power couple Claire and Frank Underwood are unapologetically, consensually non-monogamous. In fact, sociologist Mimi Schippers says the show portrays “one of the best television representations of an open/poly relationship I’ve seen.” In the fourth season, Claire, married to the President of the United States, becomes sexually involved with Thomas Yates, a writer. While many shows depict “extramarital affairs” as inherently negative, “House of Cards” Frank affirms that Tom can “give” Claire things he can’t.

In a blog post for NYU Press, Schippers argues that the Underwoods go “beyond” marriage, monogamy, and dominant gender norms. According to research she conducted for her upcoming book, men in polyamorous relationships tend to shift their understanding of masculinity because they must forgo jealousy and control over the women in their lives. The openly non-monogamous relationships on “House of Cards” thus challenge more than just ideas about what relationships should look like. It confronts gendered expectations for men to be competitive and possessive and grants women sexual autonomy, independent of men.

[T]he Underwoods distinguish themselves from society’s ideas of the “perfect couple” by being both child-free and consensually non-monogamous. They are something else–something beyond “perfect”, beyond marriage, and beyond traditional gender arrangements. Rather than representing bad character or immorality, Claire’s increasingly intimate relationship with Tom and Frank’s enthusiastic acceptance of it (the very definition of polyamory) punctuates and solidifies the strength of their marriage as one between equals.

"Proto-Professor," by Liz Lawley, Flickr CC.
“Proto-Professor,” by Liz Lawley, Flickr CC.

Parenting is hard, whether you’re an academic or not. But when you’re a professor, there is one surefire way to help stay in the field, get tenure, and even score a pay bump. Be a man.

The message is clear: women with children in academia are at a disadvantage compared to both men with children and women without them. A recent article in Jezebel compiled findings from several studies to demonstrate this. According to sociologist Michelle Budig, high-income men get the biggest pay bump from having children in any job category, and low-income women lose the most.

A US News article, likewise reports that male professors with young children are more than three times as likely as women with young children to get tenure-track positions. Notably, women without children come in a close second: they are just under three times as likely as women with children to get tenure.

Along the same lines, women who have a baby as a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow are more than twice as likely as men who have children during this time to leave academic research. When it comes to having children in academia, women pay a harsh “baby penalty.”

A couple in Tehran. Photo by Kamyar Adl, Flickr CC.
A couple in Tehran. Photo by Kamyar Adl, Flickr CC.

Some Iranian officials are increasingly worried about what they call “white marriage” or sometimes “black coupling.” These terms refer to cohabitation between unmarried men and women. Officials deem the trend “worrisome” and “a serious blow to the family,” and some insinuate that women who cohabitate will become prostitutes when they are no longer viewed as beautiful by their partners. The Iranian news outlet Payvand recently featured a sociologist who spoke anonymously to the International Campaign for Human Rights about why cohabitation, despite the disparagement, seems to be on the rise.

One reason to engage in “white marriage” is that it allows couples to avoid the bureaucracy and gender inequalities that come with legal marriage in Iran. The sociologist notes that marriage contracts overwhelmingly favor men. For instance, men can control their wives’ travel, decide where the couple lives, and have more rights in divorce.

An earlier BBC article noted that cohabitation is also a result of the loosening of some traditional morals in Iranian society:

“Of course cohabitation is not accepted by the more religious parts of society,” says sociologist Mehrdad Darvishpour, who is now based in Sweden. “But just like in the rest of the world, the middle class in Iran is starting to prefer this type of life to traditional marriage. Sex before marriage isn’t taboo anymore.”

While it seems progressive, however, the unnamed sociologist in Payvand also highlighted potential negative consequences for a woman in a “white marriage”:

“If a woman is attacked by her male partner, she would have no legal protection,” the sociologist told the Campaign. “Instead she would be asked by the police and judicial authorities about her marital status and if she is not legally married, she will be in a lot of trouble.”

Since most cohabitation is hidden from the woman’s parents, she may lose the support of her family should she experience and try to escape emotional or physical abuse. Couples also risk accusations of adultery—an offense punishable by death—since Iranian Sharia Law requires all marital unions be registered.

For more on cohabitation in the U.S., check out this post from the Council on Contemporary Families.

Photo by Abhisek Sarda via Flickr.
Photo by Abhisek Sarda via Flickr.

For years, legislators and employers have framed guaranteed parental leave as a “women’s issue.” Women serve as the primary advocates for policies that allow more flexibility between work and family life, while fighting stereotypes that paint them as less committed to their jobs than men. In a recent article for Fast Company, sociologist Michael Kimmel discusses how the U.S. lags behind every other industrialized country in policies that guarantee parental leave and how he believes this contradicts “family first” ideals. “Supporting families is the very definition of family values,” writes Kimmel. “How can we possibly lecture others about loving and supporting families when we value our own so little?”

One key to the gradual change that’s come to cities including New York, Washington D.C., and Chicago may be a shift in male perspectives of household work. Recent surveys suggest many men want to be more involved in household duties. Despite that willingness, however, women still bear much of the burden. Consequently, fathers are often praised for more public acts of parenting, like taking children to soccer practice, while mothers are more likely to take care of unsung housework, struggling to also meet the demands of their careers. Further, researchers note that demanding careers cause increased risks of physical and mental illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, and stress for everyone, not just fathers or mothers.

As legislators craft a new wave of parental leave policies, many question how employers can provide a working environment to support parents and families. In a recent study, Phyllis Moen and Erin Kelly studied the Star Initiative program that allowed for increased flexibility for 700 employees at a Fortune 500 company. The aim was to provide employees with more flexibility in attending meetings, working from home, and communicating via instant messenger. After one year, those involved in the initiative reported greater job satisfaction and lower rates of poor mental health. According to Kelly, “One important implication of this research is that workplaces can change to bring some relief to stressed out workers. It’s not up to an individual to figure out how to balance everything. Challenges come up with work, but organizations can change to bring some relief.”

The New York Times, Katrina displacement as of 9/23/2005.
The New York Times, Katrina displacement as of 9/23/2005. Click for original.

The New Yorker recently featured several sociologists in a piece about what has happened to residents of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina:

  • David Kirk, who studies neighborhood effects, focused on recidivism, or likelihood of ending up in prison again after release, based on whether individuals stayed in the same neighborhood or moved elsewhere. He found that those who returned to their former neighborhoods in New Orleans had a 60% recidivism rate compared to those who. While, historically African Americans have been more likely to move, often for economic mobility, since 1970 the pattern has flipped, and more African Americans tend to stay put.
  • Patrick Sharkey says that in recent decades white Americans more frequently engage in “contextual mobility,” or moves significant enough to change opportunities and circumstances. Instead of major moves, African-American families in urban areas tend to make more frequent, minor moves to places similar to their previous living arrangement.
  • According to Stefanie DeLuca, these moves are not voluntary. Rising rent, eviction, breakups, or changing in housing subsidies spark moves within the same areas—not the better schools or job opportunities that middle-class Americans cite as reasons to relocate.

Following the severe damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, going “home” wasn’t possible for many poor black families. As it turns out, those who had to leave found their new homes offered more opportunity:

  • Houston, Texas, has become a hot spot of upward mobility for those displaced by Katrina, Corina Graif found: “The fact that they were all of a sudden thrown out of that whirlpool gives them a chance to rethink what they do. It gives them a new option—a new metro area has more neighborhoods in better shape,” she says of the 700 mostly black women she tracked.

Sharkey cautions optimistic readers that relocation could become a game of cat and mouse. If too many poor people move into middle-class areas, the middle-class may move, taking some of the neighborhood’s higher resources and leaving new families in circumstances that mimic a minor move.

Utah couple Liam and Curtis pose with their son. Creative Commons photo by Sharon Mattheson-McCutcheon.
Utah couple Liam and Curtis pose with their son. Creative Commons photo by Sharon Mattheson-McCutcheon.

 

Between the high costs of adoption and surrogacy, same-sex parents face many more obstacles than most heterosexual couples when it comes to adding a child to the family photo. Among those couples who go the distance, lesbians have been much more likely than gay men to parent, but the number of male couples seeking adoption is on the rise. “They have to go out of their way to become fathers,” Nancy Mezey, a sociology professor at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey told New York Times about the dedicated men making the long and complicated journey to parenthood.

Such two-father families fill specific niches and tend to foster inclusivity in more than one way. “They’re adopting children that other people don’t want to adopt. They’re teaching their children tolerance and expanding definitions of gender roles,” according to Mezey. “They are helping to redefine what it means to be a real man.”

One interesting twist is the division of household labor same-sex parent homes. Among heterosexual couples, cultural norms have long encouraged women to raise children while men bring home the bacon. This means stay-at-home gay dads also quietly “challenge dominant beliefs that dads are primarily breadwinners and can’t be the primary nurturers,” Mezey told the Times.

Well, that oughta help her feel good about her time-use choices. Photo by Beth Kanter, Flickr CC.
Well, that oughta help her feel good about her time-use choices. Photo by Beth Kanter, Flickr CC.

 

Men and women who are lawyers, consultants, or hold other prestigious jobs find themselves answering late night emails and weekend phone calls. Even when they’re “off the clock,” trying to relax with their families, highly paid professionals often attend to work.

Still, men and women tend to cope with demands for their time differently, and it boils down to men working as much as possible, while women try to negotiate their careers to accommodate rearing their children. Sociologist Mary Blair-Loy from the University of California, San Diego told the New York Times that these differences come from broader, gendered cultural expectations: “It’s not really about business; it’s about fundamental identity and masculinity,” Ms. Blair-Loy said. “Men are required by the culture to be these superheroes, to fulfill this devotion and single-minded commitment to work.” For women, carpool, soccer games, and dance recitals are seen as more acceptable reasons for leaving work, “because they have an external definition of morality or leading the good life, which is being devoted to their children.”

However, being a “good mom” isn’t a “free pass,” and it certainly isn’t a route to career advancement. Coworkers often interpret only working 9-to-5 to mean that a woman is not fully invested in her career. And when the moms put their careers “before their kids”—say, taking calls during a T-ball game or staying at the office until 9pm—they’re likely to lose the respect of their colleagues, judged for bucking others’ ideas of what a nurturing mom really looks like. In careers and elsewhere, cultural tropes, from boardroom bosses to soccer moms, have real consequences.

Image by Ginny Washburne via FLickr CC
Image by Ginny Washburne via FLickr CC

 

Most people think of sociology as marriage-neutral, or even anti-marriage because the institution has been linked to patriarchy, heteronormativity, domestic abuse, and a general suppression of women’s rights; however, the field has seen a shift toward a pro-marriage point of view (see, for instance, scholars like Andrew Cherlin). In the Boston Globe, Philip Cohen from University of Maryland College Park says, “Criticism of marriage as a social institution comes from the universal and basically compulsory system of marriage in the 1950s.” Since ‘50s-style marriage is no longer necessarily true, it makes sense to see an evolving scholarly outlook on the issue.

Those who say matrimony matters point to its advantages for low-income children. According to Sarah McLanahan, children with unmarried parents spend less time with their fathers and receive less financial support. Cherlin, for his part, says marriage, more so than cohabitation, contributes to family stability that leads to better child outcomes.

The evidence doesn’t necessarily mean that marriage causes the “good things” attributed to it, either. Yes, unmarried mothers tend to make less money than their married counterparts, but marriage thrives among the more educated. Those with college degrees wait longer to marry and have more resources to give their children. This means the specific people who marry make it look like married people have better outcomes, when usually they were privileged before exchanging vows. Putting a ring on it will not automatically make people healthier, wealthier, or wiser.

This disparity in findings and even recommendations about marriage points to an issue bigger than family values: “This class divide in marriage and family life is both cause and consequence of the growing inequality in American life,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project. Kristi Williams elaborates that economic circumstances can influence marriage, so trying to change marriage without fixing economic disparities is wrong-headed. Philip Cohen agrees, saying, “The idea that the culture is going downhill and we need a cultural revival happens to be very closely related to the idea that we should not address poor peoples’ problems by raising taxes and giving poor people money,” he said. “So there’s a political element” in marriage promotion efforts.

moynihanSince the 1965 “Moynihan Report,” conversations about disproportionate inequalities between white and black communities have historically focused on “black culture”—that is, explanations of racial discrepancies as products of different values, social norms, and cultural practices within black communities. The study, formally titled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” saw black poverty as the result of non-nuclear family structures and absentee fathers. Now, University of Maryland sociologist Philip N. Cohen tells Vox that academics are leaving the argument behind because it simply doesn’t hold up:

The predominant view now is that there is a specific condition of inner-city concentrated poverty especially in black communities, because of racial segregation and racism, and the structural conditions are very damaging to family life, family relationships. People lose jobs and housing because of incarceration, job discrimination, etc., which create real obstacles to family stability, which in turn is a challenging condition for children’s development.

Indeed, as social science has matured and issues of race and racism have come under scrutiny and greater focus, more people are aware that structural issues, rather than personal ones, best explain advantage and privilege by race. Hopefully 1960s-era thought is well on its way to being replaced with more nuanced understandings of the factors behind racial discrepancies.