Pamela Herd, Jeremy Freese, Kamil Sicinski, Benjamin W. Domingue, Kathleen Mullan Harris, Caiping Wei, Robert M. Hauser, “Genes, Gender Inequality, and Educational Attainment,” American Sociological Review, 2019
A woman receives her college diploma. Photo via pxfuel.

Both nature and nurture have always influenced who goes furthest in school. Recent advancements in genetics have found a way to modestly predict educational success through genes, and sociologists are engaging with that work to explore what social factors affect the expression of those genes. Because women’s access to higher education has historically been limited by social and structural barriers, genetic predictors of educational success may have been muted. Over the past century, women’s college access has increased, but has this also equalized the role played by genetics in predicting who attains a higher education? Tracing gendered effects of genetics over time can expose effects of gender discrimination in education.

Pamela Herd and her research team including Jeremy Freese, Kamil Sicinski, Benjamin W. Domingue, Kathleen Mullan Harris, Caiping Wei, and Robert M. Hauser decided to find out. Using data from three longitudinal surveys, they examined the educational attainment of participants born during different generations, including the Silent Generation (born 1931-1941); War Babies (born 1942-1947), Early Baby Boomers (born 1948-1953), Mid Baby Boomers (born 1954-1959); and Generation X (born 1976-1983). Each respondent provided a saliva sample which was analyzed for genetic intelligence indicators, or alleles associated with higher educational attainment. Respondents were then assigned a polygenic score — a big summary measure that has been shown in other studies to modestly predict educational success. The researchers used these scores to compare how much genes predicted educational attainment for the men and women born throughout the 20th century, and how this changed over time.

They found that the role of genetics in shaping educational attainment is strongly patterned by gender. Among participants born in 1939-1940, they found that men’s polygenic score was more tightly linked to their schooling than women’s at every age. Genetic predispositions helped men graduate college, but even women with the same genetic predispositions were limited by societal factors. 

But in comparing the patterns of men and women born in different generations, they found that gender differences varied as social conditions changed. Among the older cohorts, men showed a stronger link than women. The researchers believe that this was because women’s participation in higher education was severely limited during the 1950s and 60s, and because many men who had the grades (and the genes) to go to college either opted to do so to avoid the draft or mandatory military service or took advantage of GI benefits afterward. During the 1950s, however, the pattern began to reverse. This was likely because women in the older cohorts entered middle age, they returned to school as their childrearing responsibilities lessened and educational opportunities became more widely available. At that point the relationship between genetic factors and attainment increased–that is, the women who were genetically predisposed to do well at school were more likely to return in later adulthood. Around that time, more young women also began taking advantage of increased opportunities for higher education.

Among the youngest respondents, born in 1982 and for whom educational opportunity has been the most equal, genetics is no stronger a predictor of postsecondary educational attainment for men than for women. 

Examining the interplay between genes and the environment can help us understand how gender inequalities in educational outcomes have changed over time. It also reveals that finishing college is not automatically the result of individual traits, but instead shaped by the social environment.

While the number of families in poverty has risen over the past two decades, the number of TANF recipients has declined.

As the United States enters a deep economic recession, more families will need to rely on the government for financial support. Many families have already received stimulus checks (though some are still waiting). But how much difference does cash assistance really make? According to a new study, direct assistance programs play a vital role in helping families with children avoid food and housing insecurity. 

H. Luke Shaefer, Kathryn Edin, Vincent Fusaro, and Pinghui Wu first examined state administrative data from 2001 to 2015 on the number of families relying on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)– a short-term cash assistance program to support families with children struggling financially. They found that as eligibility rules were tightened, fewer households qualified for TANF and caseloads declined from 2.26 to 1.50 million. At the same time, families in poverty increased from 5.31 to 6.48 million.

Because the researchers were interested in how declines in cash assistance programs affect families’ well-being, they then looked at data on homelesseness and food insecurity. Data on the number of homeless public school children came from the National Center for Homeless Education, and data on food insecurity came from the Current Population Survey (CPS). Households were considered food insecure when they did not have access to an adequate amount and quality of food. For instance, families might not have had enough money to afford balanced meals or they might have cut the size of their meals to save money.

For all households with children, the decline in TANF caseloads led to increased food insecurity and student homelessness. The food security of single mothers with children were most affected by these declines. In addition, the relationship between cash assistance and homelessness was especially strong. This suggests that the decline in direct-assistance programs like TANF has increased the instability of children’s living situations. This is troubling because previous research shows that housing instability often leads to school instability and lower rates of graduation

This research shows how cash assistance programs play an important role in easing hardship for families struggling financially. As governments consider how to mitigate the effects of the coming recession, cash assistance is a proven way to help keep children housed and fed. 

A Peace Corps Volunteer paints a mural on a main street with her students in the Dominican Republic. Photo by Peace Corps via Flickr.

Students graduating from college now are searching for jobs at the same time as 1 in 5 American adults have filed for unemployment in the past month. A growing number may have applied to service programs like the Peace Corps or Teach for America — 1-3 year programs that come with a small stipend or require fundraising and are dedicated to a specific mission. Scholars have hypothesized that these programs allow students to explore their identity during an extended transition to adulthood. But new research from Alanna Gillis finds that there are distinct class differences in why students choose service programs. 

Gillis interviewed 30 juniors and seniors at an elite public university who were considering service programs. She identified four different ways that students thought about their service opportunities. Some, for instance, saw service programs like Teach For America as pathways to employment, whereas others thought about service programs as a short-term, service-oriented experience before settling into a more stability-motivated long-term career. These ways of thinking corresponded with different social class backgrounds and orientations toward work values. But despite these differences, all of the students were using service programs to respond to constraints of the labor market.

Social class and financial situations were key to how students saw service programs. For instance, one set of students were intrinsically motivated to do a service program because of the identity and values that they had developed in college. They saw service programs as a step towards a service-oriented career that they couldn’t yet precisely define. These students came from more privileged backgrounds or had qualified for large enough scholarships that they had little student debt. In contrast, students who came from more marginalized backgrounds and had more immediate financial precarity were more likely to be “backup planners,” interested in applying for service programs largely to make sure they had some form of employment immediately after graduation, even though they would prefer a full-time job. 

Although these interviews took place in 2015-16, when economists saw the United States as mostly recovered from the 2008 recession, these students perceived difficulty in getting jobs. Whether service programs were a backup plan, an escape before taking a more constraining job, an explicit pathway into the labor market, or a short-term way to build human capital, service programs were a way to respond to challenges in the labor market. Given the horrific labor market during stay-at-home orders related to covid-19, it is likely that a lot of students are now backup planners. Considering that students in a good economy were looking to service programs to fill (and help jump) the gap between no job and a rewarding career, it is likely that service programs of all stripes will be more important than ever. 

A older man reads a newspaper while sitting on a park bench. Photo by Hasan Albari via Pexels.

Today, there is a higher volume of news options than ever before and heightened concerns about the proliferation of “fake news.” One could argue it is more important than ever to research content before relying on it. But consumers are more likely to rely on it first, then verify it, according to recent media studies research.

The team of Stephanie Edgerly, Rachel Mourão, Esther Thorson and Samuel Tham used an experimental design with 841 participants to study when audiences seek to verify the news. After showing respondents a Fox News or Washington Post headline, the experiment asked respondents to indicate if they were likely to check other major news outlets, ask friends/family members, use a search engine, check Facebook/Twitter, or consult some other source to see if the headline was supported. 

Respondents showed greater intent to verify content from a source they considered credible or a headline that they perceived to be congruent with their already-established beliefs. Or, stated in the opposite manner, if participants found a source had low credibility and questioned the veracity of the headline, they showed less intent to verify. This finding goes against the reasonable belief that people would verify a headline if they were uncertain. Instead, readers strove for further proof to information that is consistent with what they want the answer to be.

Validating the news takes extra time and energy on a reader’s part. A reader must take additional actions in response to information they encounter. Overall, the team found respondents were more motivated to engage in confirmatory validation. Why? To dominate debate. “The incentive to take on the extra work of verification is greater when people think they can use the information to win future arguments,” the authors say. Credible headlines that back up partisanship values provide strong evidence for arguments. Less credible headlines that are against partisanship values are useless in debates. And, let’s face it, in this time of extreme partisanship, people are eager for a verbal battle. 

A freestyle rap battle in NYC. Photo by Eli Duke, Flickr CC

Early hip-hop forwarded themes of counterculture, anti-establishment, and underprivilege; marginalized groups used hip-hop to tell their stories. Today, however, hip-hop is a multinational and multi-billion dollar industry. Can hip-hop music hold onto connections with disadvantaged communities? Sarah Becker and Castel Sweet explore this in new research based on interviews with 25 Southern hip-hop artists, most who are black men. The authors draw on “black placemaking” theories to explain how artists maintain connections to disadvantaged communities and to explore how perceptions of and connections to physical place can shape hip-hop and art.

Artists interviewed in the current study represent a variety of personal backgrounds and hip-hop styles; some are from disadvantaged, lower-class communities and some are not. The authors turn to theories of “black placemaking” about how black Americans build meaningful community solidarity in the face of oppression, marginalization, and disadvantage, both past and present. Research on black placemaking has found that alliances between black working-class and middle-class neighborhoods can bolster how underprivileged neighborhoods build community and solidarity.

Artists from concentrated disadvantage in impoverished areas draw heavily on community connections and responsibilities when describing their artistic visions and personal goals. Being a role model and helping the community is an important motivator for many of these artists, and many shared tales of community resilience in the face of adversity and marginalization. Interestingly, artists from middle-class backgrounds who have personal connections with disadvantaged communities or now live in such areas also discuss community building and dealing with concentrated disadvantage. 

This study shows that, in addition to driving community resilience and solidarity, black placemaking can shape artistic visions, goals, and careers. It also illustrates how cross-class alliances and middle-class blacks continue to play a role in how underprivileged neighborhoods survive and thrive in hard times, and this can drive some sick rhymes; commercialism be damned, hip-hop is still alive!!! #bars

Zafer Buyukkececi, Thomas Leopold, Ruben van Gaalen, and Henriette Engelhardt, “Family, Firms, and Fertility: A Study of Social Interaction Effects,” Demography, 2020
A woman holding a newborn baby
Photo by Jake Guild, Flickr CC

Everyone is stuck inside, so we will see a baby boom in nine months . . . right? There’s actually not a lot of evidence that interruptions to normal life cause baby booms, but there is evidence that the decision to have kids spreads through personal networks. In a recent article, four researchers found new evidence that both siblings and co-workers affect individuals’ fertility decisions. 

Zafer Buyukkececi, Thomas Leopold, Ruben van Gaalen, and Henriette Engelhardt used detailed statistical data from the Netherlands to identify how two networks, siblings and co-workers, affect whether or not an individual decides to have a baby. The longitudinal data covers the entire Dutch population and allows researchers to link individuals to families and workplaces. 

Demographers have long known that siblings and coworkers make similar decisions about fertility. Those similarities could be because siblings and coworkers share contexts and experiences, or because the choices of those around us actually help us make our own choices. In this study, the researchers found evidence that the actions of individuals we know does change decision-making, at least for women.

Women were more likely to become mothers after others in their sibling and colleague networks became parents. The sibling effect was stronger, but because most people have more colleagues than siblings, more births in colleague networks might make up for the strength difference. Colleague effects were only significant for women with other female colleagues. 

Networks affect fertility decisions in part because individuals learn what to expect from others. So, rather than a universal baby boom, expect potential mothers to be watching the experiences of their siblings and coworkers during this pandemic.

Image: low camera angle photo of church pews facing the front of a sanctuary. Image courtesy of pixabay/marcino.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously proclaimed that Sunday mornings contain the most segregated hour in America. MLK was talking about churches in 1960. Today, a small but growing reality is a move toward multiracial churches. These churches create a unique situation in which Black pastors have a seat at the table in predominantly white institutional settings. But, as recent research demonstrates, white pastors benefit more from leading a multiracial church. 

 Christopher Munn conducted a qualitative analysis using a national, stratified sample of 121 religious leaders to understand how race shapes inequality in multiracial churches. He looked at multiple social contexts (i.e. mentorship, leadership positions) and material resources (i.e. grant funding) that each leader described, weighing each social relationship by its potential benefit and perceived durability. Munn found clear racial differences in social capital, or the resources that come from social relationships.

First, white pastors hoard capital. They trap resources by sharing primarily with other white network members. This looks benign on the surface, as it commonly takes the shape of things like peer mentor programs, sharing social ties, and informal exchanges of resources in general. But access to these embedded resources is mostly limited to white men, and to a lesser extent white women. 

Second, Black pastors found a more symbolic seat at the table, in which their contributions were devalued and their access was restricted. For example, they could be paid a small sum for leading a diversity workshop for other church leaders, but were unlikely to find the more sustainable funds that white pastors were more able to access. 

In a telling example, a white male pastor serving on the board for a local healthcare system befriended the hospital’s CEO, and now his church’s nonprofit housing initiative receives $100K/year from that hospital. Racial inequality in wealth and access continues to matter, even in the leadership of religious organizations. 

Photos of female Democratic presidential candidates Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Tulsi Gabbard. Photos via Wikipedia.

In October there were four women out of twelve presidential candidates on the Democratic debate stage, and Joe Biden has committed to selecting a woman as his vice president. But women are still underrepresented in political and business leadership. Why does this continue to be the case, 100 years after female suffrage and 50 years after the women’s movement went mainstream? New experimental research finds that anticipating harsh consequences for failure may be one reason women do not say yes to leadership opportunities.

Susan Fisk and Jon Overton performed three studies to test how the belief that female leaders are punished more harshly than men affects women’s leadership ambitions. They first confirmed through a survey that both men and women believe female leaders will face harsher consequences for failure. They then tested whether “costly” failure would decrease leadership ambitions as compared to “benign” failure, using survey questions about whether the respondent would be willing to take on a hypothetical leadership opportunity at their job. In the “benign” circumstance the respondent’s supervisor had encouraged them to take the leadership opportunity and had expressed that the respondent could return to the original team if the initiative failed. In the “costly failure” circumstance the respondent had not received support from their supervisor and did not know what would happen if the initiative failed. 

Both men and women were less likely to say yes to the leadership position in the costly failure circumstance, but women’s leadership ambitions decreased an additional 20% over the men’s decrease. These results demonstrate that simply encouraging women to say yes to more opportunities misses why they might say no. Women in the workplace are aware that they may be judged more harshly and face more reputational or employment consequences if they fail. This study helps us understand the micro-level reasons behind the stalled gender revolution and how gender inequality can continue to exist within gender-neutral organizations.  

Photo by Lori Newman, public domain

We know that children’s health depends on their parents in many ways, from genetics to life experiences. New research shows that the reverse is also true: children’s experiences impact their parents’ health. Specifically, this research shows that children’s experiences of discrimination influence their mothers’ health. 

Cynthia G. Colen, Qi Li, Corinne Reczek, and David R. Williams used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth, a survey following women and their children. They looked at mothers’ self-rated health assessments from the mid 2000s, when mothers were 40 and 50 years old, to determine how their health changed. The sample of mothers’ health assessments varied significantly by race. By age 50, only 17% of white mothers reported poor health, while 31% of Black and 26% of Hispanic mothers reported poor health. 

The researchers also looked at data on children’s experiences of unfair treatment when the children were young adults. Unfair treatment fell in two categories: major experiences or “acute discrimination,” and everyday or “chronic discrimination.” Acute discrimination included specific incidences like being unfairly fired or denied promotion and being unfairly searched or abused by police. Chronic discrimination highlighted the frequency of unfair treatment, like how often respondents had been treated with less respect than others, called names or harassed, or how often other people had treated respondents as if they were not smart. 

Overall, children’s exposure to discrimination — both acute and chronic —  was associated with significant declines in their mothers’ health at midlife (from age 40 to 50). This is an important finding because most research on intergenerational health focuses on how parents affect their children’s health. Studies like these can help us to understand how disadvantage is reproduced through generations.

The researchers wondered whether Black and Hispanic mothers’ poor health was a result of their children experiencing more discrimination than children of white mothers. They found this to be true for Black mothers, but not for Hispanic mothers. Specifically, children’s experiences of discrimination explained about 10% of the Black-white health gap, but very little of the Hispanic-white health gap for mothers.

In addition, Black mothers’ health declined at a slower rate compared to white mothers’ health, even when their children experienced high levels of discrimination. One explanation for this finding is that Black mothers spend a lifetime preparing to and dealing with discrimination, whereas white mothers may not and thus have fewer coping skills to deal with feelings of helplessness when their children experience discrimination.

This research helps us to understand how discrimination is more than just an individual experience. Stressors, like unfair treatment, can have “spillover effects” — in this case, leading to declines in the health of family members.

A young girl about to receive a vaccine. A parent holds her hand.
Photo by SELF Magazine, Flickr CC

The anti-vaccine movement has persisted for some time, perplexing scholars and medical practitioners alike. Based upon anti-vaxxers’ strong sentiments, one would expect these same parents to reject other pharmaceutical interventions. In a recent study, however, Jennifer Reich finds that parents often have contradictory views on their children’s health care. These parents use pharmaceutical interventions for some illnesses while simultaneously refusing to vaccinate their children for others.

Reich interviewed 34 parents from 2007 to 2014 in Colorado (the state with the lowest rates of vaccination). These parents had challenged or rejected expert recommendations on vaccines but consented to other forms of medical intervention for their children in the cases of ADHD medication, seizure disorder medication, and cancer treatments. 

Reich finds that anti-vaxxers “call the shots,” but they don’t make these decisions alone. Parents’ decisions regarding medication use for their children results from individual, interactional, and institutional contexts. Thus, the refusal to vaccinate is not a categorical rejection of pharmaceutical intervention.

Reich finds that some parents used individual strategies in which they differentiated between necessary treatments to protect their children from harm, such as ADHD medicine, and unnecessary medications, such as vaccinations. Alternatively, for some parents, negotiations with healthcare providers led to the use of medication. For example, one family shopped for healthcare providers they liked and felt respected by, and paid more for medications that they believed were safer.

Parental consent to medication may also result from institutional insistence. For example, one family was convinced to let their child receive medical treatment for cancer through the threat of legal coercion and the hospital requirement for all patients to receive the flu vaccine. 

Finally, Reich finds that privileged parents are both more likely to challenge expert advice regarding vaccines, and more likely to receive respect from healthcare providers and have their views taken seriously.