Obama, the suburbs, higher education, and HENRYs

Peter Wood ties Stanley Kurtz’s new book about Obama and the suburbs to another interesting issue: the higher education bubble.

I have argued that among the factors most likely to precipitate the crash is the disaffection of families earning over $100,000 a year. Many of these families have seen the value of their home equity fall but have, with hard effort, kept their noses above water during the recession. The income bracket of $100,000 to $250,000—called “HENRYs” in marketing parlance, for High Earners who are Not Rich Yet—are a key sector for colleges and universities. These are the folks who borrow to the hilt to afford overpriced college tuitions. The bracket above the HENRYs, those earning over $250,000, are another key to higher-education finance. There are only about two million such families, but they are the top-end consumers of expensive colleges. Their willingness to pay top dollar is what signals to the HENRYs that the tuitions must be worth it.

These high income families—$100,000 and above—are concentrated in the suburbs. I have already written (Helium, Part 2) on the likelihood that these families will be forced to rethink their longstanding assumptions about the value of expensive colleges in light of the huge tax increases set to kick in after the 2012 presidential election. In the “ecology of higher education,” we are about to see what happens when we torch the canopy.

Kurtz’s book suggests that the assault on the HENRYs and the $250 K plus crowd goes beyond income and capital-gains taxes. We are in an era of emergent policy aimed at deconstructing what makes the suburbs attractive to the affluent. The “regionalists” advocate something called “regional tax base sharing,” which essentially means using state legislative power to take tax receipts from the suburbs to pay for services in the cities. The suburbanites will be faced with the unpleasant choice between lower levels of service for their own communities or raising their own taxes still higher to make up for the money they will “share” with their urban neighbors…

These are matters that faculty members, even those who enjoy life on campuses idyllically tucked away in verdant suburbs, will probably weigh lightly. But the regionalists are, in effect, working hard to diminish the attractions of the communities that form the social base for the prestige-oriented upscale colleges and universities that have for the last sixty or seventy years defined the aspirational goals of the American middle class. The war on the suburbs combined with the large increase in the tax burden may be the pincers that pop the bubble.

America is a suburban country so it makes sense that HENRYs and some of the colleges that appeal to them are located in the suburbs.

There are larger issues here. College is tied to a key foundation of suburban life: children should be cared for and given the opportunities that will help them get ahead in life. Particularly in the post-World War II era, going to college is a necessary suburban rite of passage that insures a middle-class or higher lifestyle. If college becomes too expensive for this group, it will be fascinating to see how they adjust.

“It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged”

A New York Times article looks at how marriage affects inequality. Here are some of the interesting tidbits:

Estimates vary widely, but scholars have said that changes in marriage patterns — as opposed to changes in individual earnings — may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality. Long a nation of economic extremes, the United States is also becoming a society of family haves and family have-nots, with marriage and its rewards evermore confined to the fortunate classes.

“It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University.

About 41 percent of births in the United States occur outside marriage, up sharply from 17 percent three decades ago. But equally sharp are the educational divides, according to an analysis by Child Trends, a Washington research group. Less than 10 percent of the births to college-educated women occur outside marriage, while for women with high school degrees or less the figure is nearly 60 percent…

Sara McLanahan, a Princeton sociologist, warns that family structure increasingly consigns children to “diverging destinies.”

I’ve tackled this before (see here) but this is still interesting: marriage can have powerful economic effects.

The normative implications of such findings are interesting to consider. Should we pursue pro-marriage policies in the face of record number of adult Americans living alone? If we don’t want to have the government promoting such things, how do you close this gap working with other social levers?

This reminds me of the recent discussion-provoking cover story from The Atlantic titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”  Marriage was not the primary focus of the story though it certainly plays a role in what both men and women can accomplish. Also, it is tied to a factor not discussed in the story: as Slaughter suggests, the women may be limited by the system but the interest couples have in both working might also be related to a desire to have two incomes. Indeed, having a certain standard of living in certain metropolitan areas generally requires two incomes unless one partner is in a lucrative job. Being married increases the purchasing power of a family which is no small feat.


A few sociological answers to why American kids are “spoiled rotten”

A recent piece in the New Yorker asks “Why Are American Kids So Spoiled?” Here appear to be the crux of the problem:

With the exception of the imperial offspring of the Ming dynasty and the dauphins of pre-Revolutionary France, contemporary American kids may represent the most indulged young people in the history of the world. It’s not just that they’ve been given unprecedented amounts of stuff—clothes, toys, cameras, skis, computers, televisions, cell phones, PlayStations, iPods. (The market for Burberry Baby and other forms of kiddie “couture” has reportedly been growing by ten per cent a year.) They’ve also been granted unprecedented authority. “Parents want their kids’ approval, a reversal of the past ideal of children striving for their parents’ approval,” Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, both professors of psychology, have written. In many middle-class families, children have one, two, sometimes three adults at their beck and call. This is a social experiment on a grand scale, and a growing number of adults fear that it isn’t working out so well: according to one poll, commissioned by Timeand CNN, two-thirds of American parents think that their children are spoiled.

The article is primarily built around anthropological comparisons with “the Matsigenka, a tribe of about twelve thousand people who live in the Peruvian Amazon.” But I think there are also some sociological answers to this issue.

1. American culture has long emphasized children. While this article seems to suggest some of this is tied to recent technological and consumer changes (we can buy so much stuff so cheaply), this stretches back further than the consumeristic 1980s to today. This reminded me of the Middletown study, an in-depth examination of Muncie, Indiana that started in the 1920s. In the first study published in 1929, here are a few of the findings regarding children (and these are from my notes so there are some summaries and some quotes):

-growing problem of “early sophistication” where young teenagers (12 to 14) act like grown-ups (135) – part of this is the relaxation of traditional prohibitions between interactions of boys and girls (137) – greater aggressiveness and less modest dress of girls (140) – parents are unsure and puzzled about what to hold children to (if they could even do that ) (143) – parents increasingly devoting more of their lives to and sacrificing for the children (146-147) – mothers eager to get their hands on any resource that will help them train their children (149) yet there is “a feeling that their difficulties outrun their best efforts to cope with them” (151)

-the school provides the most formal and systematic training (181) – the school now has more responsibility where this task may have fallen to the family in the past (190)

-“If education is oftentimes taken for granted by the business class, it is no exaggeration to say that it evokes the fervor of a religion, a means of salvation, among a large section of the working class.” (187) – “Parents insist upon more and more education as part of their children’s birthright; editors and lecturers point to education as a solution for every kind of social ill…” (219) – “Education is a faith, a religion, to Middletown.” (219) – education is not desired for its content or the life of the mind but rather as a symbol: “[seen] by the working class as an open sesame that will mysteriously admit their children to a world closed to them, and by the business class as a heavily sanctioned aid in getting on further economically or socially in the world.” (220)

In other words, the Middletown study hinted at an American world that was starting to revolve around children: teenagers were gaining independence (particularly with the introduction of the automobile) and education was a growing community emphasis as it represented future progress for younger generations.

Researchers in the early mass American suburbs also noted the emphasis on family and children. The classic study of Crestwood Heights (1956) as well as some work by Dennison Nash and Peter Berger (early 1960s) showed that suburban life was organized around children. People moved to the suburbs for their children, particularly the increase in open space, the better schools, and safety. Other more recent researchers (such as Eileen Luhr) have also noted this emphasis in contemporary suburbia.

Overall, these studies suggest that the emphasis on children is not necessarily new in the United States. The form that it takes might have changed but this is not simply the result of recent trends and this is also intertwined with the important processes of consumerism, suburbanization, and education which also have a longer and more complicated history.

2. This reminds me of Annette Lareau’s two types of parenting (see Unequal Childhoods): concerted cultivation (middle-class and up) and the accomplishment of natural growth (working-class and below). Lareau argues that there are benefits of both styles of parenting (as well as disadvantages) and I wonder if some of this “spoiledness” could be beneficial down the road. What the journalist is describing seems to fit some of Lareau’s description of concerted cultivation: parents cede authority to children as the children are taught to ask questions and assert their interests and children are pushed by parents into all sorts of activities to develop their skills. Here are my notes on what Lareau says are the advantages of this:

children become adept at using language, activities are said to teach them skills that will prepare them for later opportunities/jobs/school, parents help them access new things in school and activities, they become assertive and challenge institutions to help them, institutions often made up of same kind of people so these kids fit in

And my summary of the disadvantages:

feel a sense of entitlement, little talk about money so children have little idea what things cost (in terms of money and time), parents spend a lot of time sacrificing for children, conflict can arise with professionals (school teachers and administrators in particular throughout the text), conflict between siblings and limited contact with extended families

Doesn’t this sound like this article is arguing? While there are clearly disadvantages to this way of raising children (and the differences are perhaps made more stark in comparing this to past childrearing strategies, or even the relative lack of childhood several hundred years ago), there are also advantages. Overall, Lareau suggests children raised under concerted cultivation are better prepared than their counterparts to join the adult world. Even from a young age, these children are taught to challenge institutions and given skills that serve them down the road.

Based on Lareau’s findings, is the story all bad? Perhaps not. When I read critiques like this, I always wonder if there is a little generational bias present: “these young people of today just aren’t like we were in our day.” I suppose time will help us figure this out, particularly as we see how today’s youths handle adulthood and what they are able to accomplish.

Uptick in recent years in American children born to unwed parents

As more Americans are living alone or delaying or rejecting marriage, “more children [are] born to unmarried parents.”

The percentage of first births to women living with a male partner jumped from 12% in 2002 to 22% in 2006-10 — an 83% increase. The percentage of cohabiting new fathers rose from 18% to 25%. The analysis, by the National Center for Health Statistics, is based on data collected from 2006 to 2010.

“We were a little surprised in such a short time period to see these increases,” says demographer Gladys Martinez, lead author of the report, based on face-to-face interviews with 12,279 women and 10,403 men ages 15-44.

The percentage of first births to cohabiting women tripled from 9% in 1985 to 27% for births from 2003 to 2010.

Karen Benjamin Guzzo, a sociologist at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, who studies cohabitation and fertility, says she thinks the big jump since 2002 is likely because of the recession, which was at its height from late 2007 to 2009, right in the middle of the federal data collection.

“I think it’s economic shock,” she says. “Marriage is an achievement that you enter into when you’re ready. But in the meantime, life happens. You form relationships. You have sex. You get pregnant. In a perfect world, they would prefer to be married, but where the economy is now, they’re not going to be able to get married, and they don’t want to wait to have kids.”…

Sociologist Kelly Musick of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., who studies cohabiting couples with children, says she’s noticed women with more education starting to have children outside of marriage. She says cohabiting used to be more common among women who didn’t graduate from high school but it’s becoming more common for those with a high school degree or some college…

If sociologist Benjamin Guzzo is correct, does that mean that a good economy down the road (whenever that might be) would reverse this trend? I also wonder how this fits with sociologist Kelly Musick’s suggestion that cohabitation is spreading across class lines. How does this line up with recent arguments that marriage may be becoming a middle- or upper-class luxury?

Guzzo’s argument that marriage happens when two people are “ready” is also interesting. This fits with an argument that expectations for marriage partners are very high. So people don’t want to marry because they aren’t ready, economically or perhaps psychologically, but they do feel ready to have children in these situations and having a child is less tethered to being married.

Some of this seems to be happening quite rapidly and we just starting to to track it think about what it means.

“The mothering you see today in America is culturally and historically unprecedented”

A sociologist suggests mothering is done very differently in America:

“American parenting is child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive, financially expensive and is expected to be done by mothers alone. And it is impossible to do alone,” said Sharon Hays, a sociologist at the University of Southern California. “The mothering you see today in America is culturally and historically unprecedented. We expect selfless devotion to what we interpret as the child’s needs, wants and interests at every moment of the day. And with the vast majority of mothers working, that puts them in an impossible paradox.”

While the intensity is at its most acute in the middle and upper-middle class, she said, her studies have found that low-income parents feel the same parenting pressures, compounded by the guilt of having neither the resources nor the time to meet them.

The rest of the article talks about why this is: we have structured society in such a way so that the brunt of child care is borne by individuals, not society, and with our cultural gender norms, women are left with much of the burden.

“Farewell to the suburban age”?

One strategist argues that the “suburban age” is over in America:

Note how this process is self-reinforcing. As people moved out, municipal revenues stagnated in the old urban core. This meant that deteriorating urban services in downtown areas pushed out more people. Meanwhile, the expanding suburban population could use its growing political clout to demand more public spending on highways and other urban infrastructure for the suburbs. The expansion of urban infrastructure was fiscally very expensive, but America’s powerful mid-century economy could afford it. By the end of the 20th century, some suburbs had spread so far from any urban core that they were given a new name: “exurbs”.

Today, however, these very dynamics, both financial and sociological, have gone into reverse. Concerns about the state of US federal, state and municipal finances have grown sharply. In August 2011, ratings agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded the credit rating of 11,000 municipal issues following the downgrade of the federal government. In November 2011, Jefferson County, Alabama, filed for bankruptcy, the largest such filing in US history. At the very least, this means that the United States will not be able to afford further expansion of urban infrastructure for many years. Indeed, American city managers will be forced to recognise that urban services are much cheaper to supply in a concentrated urban form…

Meanwhile, the structure of American society is also changing rapidly. In 1950, households based on married couples accounted for 78 per cent of all households. Single-person households accounted for less than 10 per cent. Over the following 60 years, however, the institution of marriage went into steep decline in America. The latest census data shows that married couples accounted for only 48 per cent of households in 2010 and that their share is rapidly falling. In contrast, the single person household now accounts for 27 per cent of households.

The residential requirements of this new social structure are drastically different from those of the traditional family. The single individual, for instance, is likely to prefer an easily managed apartment and close proximity to bars, restaurants, hospitals, shops and friends. The implication of the above sociological and fiscal dynamics is that the future trajectory of American cities is towards increased density. Some old city-centres will revive even as new hubs will emerge.

There are two major arguments here against the suburbs:

1. They are too expensive to maintain in the long-run.

2. Family structures have changed and the new forms of social arrangement, such as living alone, would be best done in the city.

Both of these are problems though I’m not sure they necessarily mean that Americans will revert to city living and promoting urban policies over suburban policies. I wonder if the shift toward the densification of the suburbs, often built around New Urbanist developments or retrofitting, would adequately solve both of these issues.

The overall premise of this piece is echoed by others (see a similar argument from The Atlantic last year) and I wonder how much of this is simply the same suburban critique that we have heard now for decades: suburbs are unsustainable and their design does not cater to everyone (teenagers, singles, the elderly, etc.). Is this era of economic crisis going to be the period where these critiques actually move residents and policymakers toward other options?

There is another intriguing part about this analysis: how American policies about suburbs influence other country’s policies. This writer suggests that India is aspiring in some ways to follow the American model when the country would be better served to promote denser cities. If the American suburban model does decline (and we would have to think about how exactly you would measure this decline), would other countries abandon their smaller suburban plans?

Cultural differences regarding the “accordion family”

A new sociology book highlights the phenomenon of the accordion family by contrasting different cultural approaches to the issue:

The global economic recession is a big driver of this phenomenon but hardly the only one. Cultural attitudes about “boomerang kids’’ vary widely. In Japan, which has been in recession for two decades, both parents and their adult children are filled with shame, and turn inward. For the Japanese, writes Newman, “personal character takes center stage,’’ not abstract explanations about diminishing economic opportunity. The Japanese “retain a strong normative sense of what is appropriate and what is deviant in the evolution from youth to adult,’’ Newman writes, and boomerang kids represent deviance (the Japanese often refer to boomerangs as “parasites’’), bringing social stigma on the entire family.

Italy is a completely different story. Italians, especially Italian men, have for centuries remained in the family home until they get married, which may find them there into their 30s or beyond. Newman interviews various 30-something Italian men living at home who quite simply don’t see a problem. The parents Newman interviews also don’t consider it dysfunctional, generally enjoying the company of their adult children. There is no social stigma attached, writes Newman, since “37 percent of [Italian] men age thirty have never lived away from home.’’

In the United States, we are somewhere in between Japanese-level stigma and Italian-style acceptance. “American attitudes are more conditional than other cultures,’’ explains Newman. Parents will support a boomerang adult child who has a plan, a way forward to improve life (e.g., through additional education, training, or an internship), but will object if their adult child is using the family home as an escape from the world.

These are some interesting contrasts across these countries. The American case in the middle here has me thinking about moral symbolic boundaries. The idea here would be that young adults living at home are fine as long as they can justify this move and reassure their parents that this is a step toward their eventual success and moving out. If they can’t make this case, this is seen as mooching. This fits with a larger American idea that we are willing to help people who also seem willing to help themselves.

I wonder if Newman also tracks these attitudes over time as perhaps these are relatively recent developments to adjust to a changing industrialized, globalized world. What aspects of a society or culture directly lead to these rules about who can live at home?

Another note from this review. Here is a paragraph that sums up the work:

Newman interviewed hundreds of boomerang adults and their parents for this accessible book, which effectively, even entertainingly, combines rigorous, statistics-driven social science with personal accounts to provide a vivid portrait of what’s happening globally.

Here is my translation of this paragraph: “It is an academic book that doesn’t read like one, meaning that you will be convinced by the data (hundreds of interviews!) but it has plenty of personal accounts to keep you entertained.” Perhaps that is too cynical. But this does offer some insights into how the general public tends to read social science research. Data, numbers in particular, can’t be too overwhelming. The book still has to be entertaining in the end, even if it is making an important point. Stories, whether they are personal accounts or good examples, are very helpful. None of these things are necessarily bad things to do yet one wonders whether the larger point of the work is muted by having to meet these requirements.

Indicators that loyalty among family members is up in America

Even though we supposedly live in a disconnected and fragmented age, there are some indicators that suggest Americans feel more loyal toward their families than in the past:

“There’s been a social and economic change that’s actually made us more dependent on family loyalties,” says Stephanie Coontz, author of “Marriage, A History” (Penguin).

“You don’t know your neighbors. It would be crazy to be loyal to your employer in the same way you used to be because your employer’s not going to be loyal to you. All of those things have simultaneously made us want more loyalty — long for more loyalty — and try, I think, to have more loyalty in our personal lives.”

Loyalty itself is difficult to measure, but likely indicators such as family closeness appear to be on the rise. A 2010 Pew Research Center study found that 40 percent of Americans say their family life is closer now than when they were growing up, and only 14 percent say it is less close. Another Pew study showed that the percentage of adults who talked with a parent every day rose to 42 percent in 2005 from 32 percent in 1989.

The family loyalty picture is complex, with Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, saying that though couples who marry today are less likely to get divorced than couples that married in the 1970s, more people are forgoing marriage or delaying it.

The article suggests several reasons why people would be feeling more loyal toward their family today: rapid economic and social change, different expectations about family life, and people are entering intimate relationships more cautiously.

There could also be a few other factors at work:

1. I wonder if there is some social desirability bias in answering a question about family closeness. What adult today would say they are doing a worse job in creating family closeness than their parents did? Also, there is a memory issue here: how many current adults can accurately remember or assess the closeness of their family when they were younger? Their current family status is much more immediate.

2. I’m surprised this wasn’t mentioned in the article: it is relatively easier to communicate in families with the advent of email, cell phones, and text messages. However, I wonder if these easier methods of connection mean that people are confusing connected with closeness or if they are indeed one and the same.

Even if loyalty isn’t truly up compared to the “golden era” decades ago (at least in our popular culture we have this image of an era where the nuclear family never let each other down), the perception that loyalty is more important or stronger matters. This is an expectation that many people will bring to relationships and affect their actions.

(A side note: Wilcox and Coontz get interviewed for a ridiculous number of news stories about family life and marriage.)

Take the sociological approach and see your in-laws as an alien culture

Here is an interesting suggestion after the holidays: in order to improve a visit with your in-laws, approach them as an alien culture.

So, to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, “What’s the deal with in-laws?” Why do they cause us so much stress? — I mean, not me of course, my in-laws, who happen to read all of my articles are awesome and exempt from all of the obnoxious statements that come next — perhaps I should re-phrase that — Why do your in-laws cause you so much stress?

The answer to this question is simple: Your in-laws are aliens…

Every family is a culture unto itself and all cultures develop rules of propriety, hierarchy and membership. For example, while some families insist on eating a formal breakfast that begins only when all members are awake, clean, and wearing monocles, others permit and perhaps even encourage thunderous belching of the national anthem while eating Cool Ranch Doritos in the family room — we don’t need to name names, you know who you are. There are families that are dominated by a single parent or grandparent and others that have a more egalitarian dynamic. Some parents might consider anyone who stops in on Christmas Eve to be a part of the family, and others require you to earn your place at the table by slaying a boar or porcupine, or performing some other feat of gallantry…

So, what do you do? Basically, I suggest an imaginary sociological approach to the problem. If you pretend that you are a sociologist trying to learn about an alien culture you will probably have less grief when you visit your in-laws and you actually might be able to enjoy yourself a bit.

This is a take on a classic sociological idea: if a Martian came to earth, what would they objectively observe?

If we want to go further with the idea of viewing your in-laws as an alien culture, we would also have to discuss the issues with being a participant observer. When visiting, it would be hard to simply sit and watch without being involved at all. (Of course, this could be easier in some family cultures than others.) At the same time, one could easily participate too much and not retain the objectivity necessary to understand what is truly going on. Finding this middle ground may be difficult but it would help in being able to hold both an insider and outsider perspective of your in-laws.

A new term: the “accordion family”

Sociologist Katherine Newman explains a new term she has coined to describe the experience of many families in recent decades where young adults return to live at home: the accordion family.

NEWMAN: …[B]asically, an accordion family is a multigenerational household in which you have adult children over the age of 21 living with their parents. And, actually, that has not been the norm in the middle class for some time. It would have been the norm before the Second World War, but it really hasn’t been for some time now…

[I]t’s actually a trend that’s been in play for some time now, so it’s not unique to the recession we’ve been mired in. But, really, ever since about the early 1980s, we’ve seen a pretty steady increase in the proportion of young people of this age group that have been either moving back with their parents or who don’t leave in the first place.And that’s mainly because the economy has been changing in ways that make it difficult for young people to find entry level employment that really pays enough for them to be independent. As well in the middle class, where we see ambitions for professional futures, it takes longer and longer and more and more money to achieve the kind of educational credentials needed to launch a middle class professional life.

So we see young people who complete college and move back in with their parents in order to shelter those costs of the master’s degree or experience with an internship where they’re not earning any money at all in the hopes of launching at a higher level when they get a bit older.

I don’t think Newman says in this interview why she uses this term but I’ll hazard a guess: an accordion implies that American families stretch to accommodate younger adults at home when economic times are bad and then contract when these same adults move out when jobs are plentiful and the economy has picked up. This is different than a norm of multi or intergenerational living – the economic climate affects who can and will move back home.