More sociologists and other scholars advocating for marriage?

There isn’t much data here presented to defend a trend but here is a brief look at recent research that highlights the benefits of marriage in the United States:

The new wave of pro-marriage scholarship is challenging orthodoxy in academic fields with reputations — fair or not — of being politically liberal, and perhaps even antimarriage, or at least marriage-neutral. Part of the shift is because marriage itself has changed within the last few generations. “Criticism of marriage as a social institution comes from the universal and basically compulsory system of marriage in the 1950s,” said Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland at College Park who has been critical of some recent scholarship promoting marriage. “When people got married who did not want to get married, especially women, and when women’s rights within marriage were much more limited, employment opportunities much less, domestic violence taken much less seriously, when rape wasn’t even a crime within marriage — that system deservedly had a bad rap.”

The new champions of marriage disagree on how, and even whether, to encourage marriage through public policy. Nonetheless, there is an emerging consensus around an idea that would have sounded retrograde just a few decades ago: that having married parents is best for children’s well-being, that marriage is beneficial for parents’ psychological and economic stability, and that it should be a priority in public policy…

It’s low-education (and often low-income) “fragile families” that most concern researchers. Princeton University sociologist Sara McLanahan recently wrote that children growing up with a single mother are “doubly disadvantaged”: They spend less time and receive less money from their biological fathers, and their mothers are also likelier to earn less than married mothers are. Children born to unmarried parents fare worse on a wide variety of measures, including an increased likelihood of developing behavior problems and of not making it to college…

Single people aren’t resisting matrimony because of some sort of moral weakness or stubbornness, these critics say, but because they have existing disadvantages, including economic ones. “The people who get and stay married — and make it look like married people are better off than people who aren’t married — were better off already,” Cohen said. “Marriage is a privileged position.” Simply prodding the currently unmarried into matrimony will not magically make them more stable, healthy, and wealthy.

As the article notes, scholars on different sides of the political spectrum disagree on what policies to enact to promote marriage and have different definitions of what marriage should be. But, could the two sides ever come together to promote a middle policy or in order to broker a compromise? If anything, it might be the pressure within each academic discipline that keeps the sides apart.

Siblings dealing with an in-family wealth gap

Inequality by wealthy doesn’t just occur across groups or families – it can be an issue within families.

Experts see a growing trend. The same forces that have increasingly separated the richest Americans from everyone else is dividing brothers and sisters, too. It’s given rise to a mix of often conflicting emotions, jealousy and resentment, disappointment and distance, but also frequently understanding and respect…

As the wealth gap has widened, some mental health professionals say they’ve seen more patients for whom such a divide has become a personal issue.

In 35 years practicing psychotherapy, Janna Malamud Smith says she’s never had so many clients troubled by sibling wealth. The complaints have grown so familiar to her she can riff on them without pause…

A decade ago, sociologist Dalton Conley produced research suggesting that income inequality in America occurs as much within families as among them. Yet the similarities tend to end there. With siblings, “you had pretty much the same advantages and disadvantages growing up,” he says, so big difference in wealth can feel like a judgment on intelligence or drive.

How Americans feel about the wealth gap within their families shapes how they feel about it nationally, whether or not they see it as an inequity that must be addressed, says Lane Kenworthy, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego…

Poll results suggest that many Americans feel the same way. Asked in October by Pew Research to name the most important reason for the wealth gap, 24 percent chose “some work harder than others,” more than tax policies, foreign trade or the educational system.

One review of Conley’s book The Pecking Order suggests Conley isn’t surprised to find inequality in the home:

Conley takes an opposing view, saying, “The home is no haven in a harsh world—it both creates and reflects that world” (p. 112). The problems of capitalism, racism, sexism, and bigotry that hinder and hurt people in society are the same ills that trickle unnoticed into the home.

This reminds me of Marx’s suggestion that the first exploitation occurred in the family. Also, this hints at the micro-level effects of broader conversations about inequality. It is one thing to have public discussions about the 1% or .01% but it is another to come face to face with these differences within your own family. How often do these kind of close interactions between unequal persons happen? Given our propensities to gather with people like us in our social networks plus the durability of social class in shaping our tastes and life chances, it may not be that often. Hence, the uniqueness of a show like Undercover Boss where the head of the company interacts with the average worker. Perhaps this means we need a show called Unequal Families

Ending a long-term relationship can lead to downward mobility in housing

The end of a long-term relationship can negative influence one’s housing options:

Many (though declining numbers of) marriages end in separation today. Besides the emotional turmoil that the marital separation causes, this event has profound effects on the chances to remain in homeownership for both ex-partners. Generally, at least one, if not both partners, will leave the previously shared dwelling. As separation often involves a loss of financial resources, people may have a hard time re-entering homeownership. After falling out of love and separating, a fall down the housing ladder may follow, as we show in a study recently published in European Sociological Review.

How drastic this fall will be depends very much on the housing market environment (see Figures 1 and 2). In the past in Britain, easy access to housing finance and high supply facilitated (re-)entry into homeownership for ex-partners even under house price inflation in the 1990s and early 2000s. In tight housing markets ex-partners will face more difficulties, and once access to mortgages becomes restricted, as happened in Britain after the recent crash in the housing market, problems may arise. So in the past British ex-partners could return to homeownership at some point in their lives because access to mortgages was easy – and they needed to return because alternatives in the private and social rental sector were and are unattractive. This may no longer work in future. Ex-partners may increasingly face similar problems that new market entrants currently encounter, for which the term generation rent has already been coined.

To better understand what may happen to British ex-partners, we can consider the example of Germany. The German housing market is in many ways different from the British, not the least because private rental accommodation is an attractive alternative to homeownership. Access to mortgages is also more restricted than in Britain, even after the recent tightening of regulations in Britain. High down payments are the rule in Germany. In this market environment, homeownership is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many, while a considerable share of people will never enter homeownership. After separation, very few Germans will be able to return to homeownership (see Figure 2). Ex-partners will be less likely to be in homeownership through their lives post-separation. This scenario may foreshadow the British situation in the near future.

Being excluded from homeownership in the German context is not as consequential as it may turn out to be in Britain, however. First, more Germans will accept to rent after separation compared to the British, because attractive, and most of all, secure accommodation is available for – internationally seen – reasonable costs. Second, the German public pension system is relatively generous for those who continuously worked throughout their lives. To build up private wealth as a cushion for old age is not as necessary as in Britain. In Britain, where individuals are expected to privately invest in financial products and property to build an individual safety net – an idea called asset-based welfare – people that experience a separation may lose this safety net. This may result in stark disparities between the separated and those remaining married in old life.

Many (though declining numbers of) marriages end in separation today. Besides the emotional turmoil that the marital separation causes, this event has profound effects on the chances to remain in homeownership for both ex-partners. Generally, at least one, if not both partners, will leave the previously shared dwelling. As separation often involves a loss of financial resources, people may have a hard time re-entering homeownership. After falling out of love and separating, a fall down the housing ladder may follow, as we show in a study recently published in European Sociological Review. – See more at: http://blog.oup.com/2014/10/home-ownership-marriage-separation/#sthash.bcXULRwJ.dpuf
Many (though declining numbers of) marriages end in separation today. Besides the emotional turmoil that the marital separation causes, this event has profound effects on the chances to remain in homeownership for both ex-partners. Generally, at least one, if not both partners, will leave the previously shared dwelling. As separation often involves a loss of financial resources, people may have a hard time re-entering homeownership. After falling out of love and separating, a fall down the housing ladder may follow, as we show in a study recently published in European Sociological Review. – See more at: http://blog.oup.com/2014/10/home-ownership-marriage-separation/#sthash.bcXULRwJ.dpuf

The authors conclude that changes in family structures over the past few decades mean that housing policy primarily built around families and stable relationships just won’t work. In other words, we need more housing options for smaller, changing families and people who live alone.

I wonder if the same findings would hold in the United States. Perhaps it might be particularly problematic in higher-priced markets where buying homes and renting can be difficult even for stable, middle-class families.

Just over half of American adults are single

Not only are single-person households the number one household type, now more than 50% of American adults are single:

Some 124.6 million Americans were single in August, 50.2 percent of those who were 16 years or older, according to data used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in its monthly job-market report. That percentage had been hovering just below 50 percent since about the beginning of 2013 before edging above it in July and August. In 1976, it was 37.4 percent and has been trending upward since.

In a report to clients entitled “Selfies,” economist Edward Yardeni flagged the increase in the proportion of singles to more than 50 percent, calling it “remarkable.” The president of Yardeni Research in New York said the rise has “implications for our economy, society and politics.”

Singles, particularly younger ones, are more likely to rent than to own their dwellings. Never-married young singles are less likely to have children and previously married older ones, many of whom have adult children, are unlikely to have young kids, Yardeni wrote. That will influence how much money they spend and what they buy.

He argued the increase in single-person households also is exaggerating income inequality in the U.S…

The percentage of adult Americans who have never married has risen to 30.4 percent from 22.1 percent in 1976, while the proportion that are divorced, separated or widowed increased to 19.8 percent from 15.3 percent, according to the economist.

This demographic trend is occurring for multiple reasons – decline in marriage, economic troubles, more people experiencing divorce and then not getting remarried, more opportunities like education for women – and is likely to have multiple consequences as briefly mentioned above.

What a sociologist learned about giving Christmas gifts from Middletown

Middletown (Muncie, Indiana) holds a special place in American sociology though the findings of two 1970s studies (ASR and AJS) about giving Christmas gifts based on the community are not as well known. Here are a few selections from the two articles:

“The 110 respondents in the sample gave 2,969 gifts and received 1,378 gifts, a mean of 27 given and 13 received. Participants in this gift system should give (individually or jointly) at least one Christmas gift every year to their mothers, fathers, sons, daughters; to the current spouses of these persons; and to their own spouses. By the operation of this rule, participants expect to receive at least one gift in return from each of these persons excepting infants…Gifts to grandparents and grandchildren seem to be equally obligatory if these live in the same community or nearby, but not at greater distances. Christmas gifts to siblings are not required.

Parents expect to give more valuable and more numerous gifts to their minor children and to their adult children living at home than they receive in return. This imbalance is central to the entire ritual. The iconography of Middletown’s secular Christmas emphasizes unreciprocated giving to children by the emblematic figure of Santa Claus, and the theme of unreciprocated giving provides one of the few connections between the secular and religious iconography of the festival-the Three Wise Men coming from a distant land to bring unreciprocated gifts to a child.”…

“Most of Middletown’s gift giving occurs between close kin…the pattern it displays shows up the two principal points of stress in the contemporary American family. The first point of stress is the insecurity of the spousal relationship. Viewed cross-culturally, the contemporary American family is unusual in exhibiting a very high level of interaction between spouses while permitting easy, almost penalty-free divorce at the initiative of either spouse at any point in the life cycle. Since divorce is always more than a remote possibility in a Middletown marriage, the relationship with affinal relatives [in-laws] is always a little uneasy.

The individual message [of a gift] says, “I value you according to the degree of our relationship” and anticipates the response, “I value you in the same way.” But the compound message that emerges from the unwrapping of gifts in the presence of the whole gathering allows more subtle meanings to be conveyed. It permits the husband to say to the wife, “I value you more than my parents” or the mother to say to the daughter-in-law, “I value you as much as my son so long as you are married to him” or the brother to say to the brother, “I value you more than our absent brothers, but less than our parents and much less than my children.” These statements, taken together, would define and sustain a social structure, if only because, by their gift messages, both parties to each dyadic relationship confirm that they have the same understanding of the relationship and the bystanders, who are interested parties, endorse that understanding by tacit approval.”

This is not the first time the media has discussed these studies but I do give credit for actually let the sociological studies speak for themselves. However, there should be a demerit for titling the web page “Christmas gift exchange: The anthropological rules beneath it.” This is based on sociological studies – these disciplines are not the same thing!

I suppose this could be a case where someone would read this and say this is all obvious. Isn’t sociology just common sense? Yet, even these small excerpts reveal some interesting findings. Physical distance matters, particularly when you get beyond the nuclear family. Additionally, Caplow notes that gift-giving between spouses is laden with meaning that can either support or undermine a marriage. While I suspect the kinds of gifts exchanged in the late 1970s might have shifted today, Caplow found money could generally be given one-way from older family members to younger family members, but not in reverse.

Considering all the hoopla surrounding Christmas in the United States and elsewhere around the world, it is a little surprising more sociologists don’t study Christmas behaviors and patterns…

Fathers still play catch with their sons? What about football, video games?

I recently saw a review of the new Jackie Robinson bio-pic 42 that suggested American fathers still bond with their sons by playing baseball. My first thought: do fathers still do this on a large scale? Here is why I think this may be an outdated sentiment.

Baseball is no longer the most popular sport in the United States. Even with the large number of kids who play baseball or Little League, baseball’s peak has long passed with the NFL taking over the sports lead. The NFL released its 2013 schedule last week and ESPN was breathless for a while looking at the most tantalizing games that have yet to be played. Baseball is no longer the “all-American sport” and surely this must trickle down to the activities of kids and fathers. While it does have the same nostalgic pitch, what about playing catch with a football in the backyard? (This may be impacted today and in the future because of fears of concussions.) Moving in a different direction, as has the racial composition of baseball players, what about kicking around a soccer ball in the backyard?

Here is another possibility for how fathers and sons might now be interacting in the United States: by playing video games together. The generation who grew up with video games has reached adulthood and these video games habits don’t simply disappear. What if fathers and sons don’t play sports together as much as play Madden? What if they enjoy a good session of Call of Duty? This may not be happening on a large scale yet but I imagine this would grow in the future.

All that said, I want to see some data about how exactly fathers are bonding with their kids in 2013. Appeals to playing catch in the backyard might just be nostalgia for a bygone era.

More women now sole breadwinner (23%) or earn more of two working spouses (28%)

USA Today takes a look at recent Census data and finds women’s status as breadwinner continues to grow:

A USA TODAY analysis of Census Bureau data reveals a revolution in the traditional roles of men and women that extends from college campuses to the workplace to the neighborhoods across this nation. Today, when one spouse works full-time and the other stays home, it’s the wife who is the sole breadwinner in a record 23% of families, the analysis finds. When the Census started tracking this in 1976, the number was 6%.

Just as telling, wives outearn their husbands 28% of the time when both work, up from 16% 25 years ago. This means the wife is bringing home the bacon — or at least more bacon than her husband — in more than 12 million American families.

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg (author of Lean In, which explores workplace biases) and Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer (who limited the company’s telecommuting policy) have stirred debate about the complex choices occurring as women push themselves higher and higher up the economic ladder. The earning superiority of women over men isn’t the rule, but it is increasingly common.

This is a consequential shift.

I do think the rest of the article illustrates the difference between journalism and sociology. The article goes on to give 12 brief overviews of couples where the woman is the primary breadwinner. They try to break down a few patterns. However, after seeing these statistics, I want to see more data (12 cases doesn’t cut out) and a more rigorous analysis (more statistics over time, more social forces that these changes affect).