New study: “How Well-Intentioned White Families Can Perpetuate Racism”

A new sociology study followed 36 white ten to thirteen year olds to see how they approached race. Sociologist Margaret Hagerman describes her findings in an interview:

I use the phrase bundled choices because it seemed to me that there were some pretty striking patterns that emerged with these families in terms of how they set up their children’s lives. For example, I talk in the book about how choosing a neighborhood leads to a whole bunch of other choices—about schools, about the other people in the neighborhood. Decisions about who to carpool with, decisions about which soccer team to be on—you want to be on the same one as all your friends, and all these aspects of the kid’s life are connected to the parents’ choices about where to live.

I’m trying to show in the book that kids are growing up in these social environments that their parents shape. They’re having interactions with other people in these environments, and that’s, I think, where they’re developing their own ideas about race and privilege and inequality…

In my book, I’m trying to highlight this tension between the broad, overarching social structures that organize all of our lives and the individual choices that people make from within these structures. So yeah, if we had equal educational opportunities, people would not be able to make choices that would confer advantages to their child over someone else’s child, right? That wouldn’t even be a possibility. Certainly, the structural level really matters.

But the best answer I can really give is that the micro level potentially could shape what goes on at the institutional or structural level. I really think—and this might sound kind of crazy—that white parents, and parents in general, need to understand that all children are worthy of their consideration. This idea that your own child is the most important thing—that’s something we could try to rethink. When affluent white parents are making these decisions about parenting, they could consider in some way at least how their decisions will affect not only their kid, but other kids. This might mean a parent votes for policies that would lead to the best possible outcome for as many kids as possible, but might be less advantageous for their own child. My overall point is that in this moment when being a good citizen conflicts with being a good parent, I think that most white parents choose to be good parents, when, sometimes at the very least, they should choose to be good citizens.

Based on the interview, this sounds pretty consistent with existing research. Families with economic means will often choose good things for their children while either thinking little of the consequences for others or rationalizing their choices as being a good parent for putting their children first. This sounds like much of suburbia that emphasizes helping your children get ahead or the idea of “dream hoarders.”

This also sounds like Thomas Schelling’s work about how preferences for certain kinds of neighbors can aggregate to larger patterns of residential segregation. If everyone is just looking out for their own children, then larger structures develop.

These findings suggest Americans have limited understandings of how to address the public good. Many such decisions seem to be binary: pursue what is good for your family versus what might be good for everyone. What about options that could be good for everyone in the long run? Does it always have to be a zero-sum game?

 

A need to better measure financial support and wealth passed to Millennials

A look at how race affects the financial support given by parents to Millennials includes this bit about measurement:

Shapiro said the numbers of Millennials receiving support from family are “absolutely underestimated” because many survey questions are not as methodical and specific as those a sociologist might ask. “As much as 90 percent of what you’ll hear isn’t picked up in the survey,” he said.

Shapiro’s more careful research found this:

Shapiro’s work pays special attention to the role of intergenerational family support in wealth building. He coined the term “transformative assets” to refer to any money acquired through family that facilitates social mobility beyond what one’s current income level would allow for. And it’s not that parents and other family members are exceptionally altruistic, either. “It’s how we all operate,” Shapiro said. “Resources tend to flow to people who are more needy.”

Racial disparity in transformative assets became especially striking to Shapiro during interviews with middle-class black Americans. “They almost always talk about financial help they give family members. People come to them,” Shapiro said. But when he asked white interviewees if they were lending financial support to family members, he said, “I almost always get laughter. They’re still getting subsidized.”…

To many Millennials, the small influxes of cash from parents are a lifeline, a financial relief they’re hard pressed to find elsewhere. To researchers, however, it’s both a symptom and an exacerbating factor of wealth inequality. In a 2004 CommonWealth magazine interview, Shapiro explained that gifts like this are “often not a lot of money, but it’s really important money. It’s a kind of money that allows families to obtain something for themselves and for their children that they couldn’t do on their own.”

Two quick thoughts:

  1. Americans tend not to like to talk about passing down wealth but decades of sociological research (as well as research from others) shows that it happens frequently and is quite advantageous for those who have wealth passed to them. I recommend looking at Shapiro and Oliver’s book Black Wealth/White Wealth.
  2. Polls like those cited here from USA Today could lead to lots of problems just because the measurement is not great. Why not ask better poll questions in the first place? I understand there are likely limits to how many questions can be asked (it is costly to ask more and longer questions) but I’d rather have sociologists and other social scientists handling this rather than the media.

Patterns in college major by parent’s income

College students with parents with higher incomes study different subjects:

Once financial concerns have been covered by their parents, children have more latitude to study less pragmatic things in school. Kim Weeden, a sociologist at Cornell, looked at National Center for Education Statistics data for me after I asked her about this phenomenon, and her analysis revealed that, yes, the amount of money a college student’s parents make does correlate with what that person studies. Kids from lower-income families tend toward “useful” majors, such as computer science, math, and physics. Those whose parents make more money flock to history, English, and performing arts.

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/07/college-major-rich-families-liberal-arts/397439/
The explanation is fairly intuitive. “It’s … consistent with the claim that kids from higher-earning families can afford to choose less vocational or instrumental majors, because they have more of a buffer against the risk of un- or under-employment,” Weeden says. With average earnings for different types of degrees as well-publicized as they are—the difference in lifetime earnings among majors can be more than $3 million, one widely covered study found—it’s not hard to imagine a student deciding his or her academic path based on its expected payout. And it’s especially not hard to imagine poorer kids making this calculation out of necessity, while richer kids forgo that means-to-an-end thinking.

Another trend expressed in the data, Weeden notes, is that lower-income families and higher-income families tend to send their children to schools with different options for majors: Most of the priciest, top-tier schools don’t offer Law Enforcement as a major, for instance. There is also the possibility that children from higher-income families were more exposed to the sorts of art, music, and literature that colleges deem worthy of study, an exposure that might inspire them to pursue those subjects when they get to college…

From this angle, college majors and occupations start to look more and more like easily-interpreted, if slightly crude, badges doled out to people based on the wealth and educational levels of the parents they were born to. There’s a reason that the first question asked at parties is often “So, what do you do?” “If we tend to avoid asking acquaintances about their income,” four prominent sociologists wrote in the 2011 anthology The Inequality Reader, “it’s not just because doing so is viewed as too intrusive and personal but also because we suspect that querying about occupation will yield more in the way of useful information.”

Four quick thoughts:

1. Of course, what majors actually lead to what jobs is not as clear as people might make it out to be. Just because someone has a particular major doesn’t mean that is where they will be working in 10 or 20 years. At the same time, some majors might lend themselves to particular jobs right after college.

2. Outside of an associate’s degree, the majors with the lowest parent incomes (top of the chart) are helping professions. This might indicate a bigger interest in wanting to work with people or directly give back to the community. Reading uncharitably, do the majors with higher parent incomes lend themselves to a certain distance from people?

3. It is interesting that sociology, political science, and anthropology are higher up on the list of parent’s incomes. Students sometimes seem to suggest that these are luxury subjects – interesting perhaps (if they don’t think it is just common sense) but too difficult for finding a career.

4. This would all make sense in Bourdieu’s ideas about social class. Those with less economic capital tend to favor more functional items while those with more capital lean toward the abstract. Why should college major be exempt from the powerful organizing forces of social class?

Sociologist on difficulties ahead for parents of killers

Sociologist Katherine Newman has studied mass shootings and has these thoughts about how the parents of the perpetrators can live the rest of their lives:

How then do parents contend with their own grief, the loss of their son, while coming to terms with who he really was and what he did to the innocent? The answer is that they never do. They are not allowed to by a public that looks for someone to blame. They are expected to express contrition, to open their most private experience to scrutiny and they do so willingly in the hope that this will somehow make amends for what they didn’t prevent from happening.

These questions are searing enough for the parents of high school shooters. They are undoubtedly worse for the Rodger family, for questions will be raised about why they didn’t keep a tighter leash on a young man with such a long history of emotional problems and psychiatric treatment. But it is precisely his age that made such surveillance problematic. No doubt they were trying to let their 22-year-old learn how to function in adult society, and that requires some degree of autonomy. The same was true for the Virginia Tech shooter…

The circle of people who come in for scrutiny and deserve sympathy widens at first but then contracts over time, and no small amount of friction emerges in the wake of such a devastating loss.

Richard Martinez, the father of Christopher who died in the Isla Vista attack, is to be applauded for reaching out to Rodger’s father. “He lost his son. I lost my son – we have that in common,” he said.

Given the importance placed on parenting in American society, particularly among the concerted cultivation crowd, the social sins of children can live on for a long time.

Kids today: “emotionally priceless and economically worthless”

Sociologist Dalton Conley talks about how the role of children has changed in recent centuries:

A child born in 2012 will cost his parents $241,080 in 2012 dollars, on average, over his lifetime. And children of higher-earning families drain the bank account more: Families earning more than $105,000 annually can expect to spend $399,780 per child.

The “price tag” is astounding, considering that until not long ago, kids were expected to contribute to the household and were not generally a financial drain on it. “From a young age, for much of human history, they would do household labor, whether gather berries or get water and bring it back. From ages 5 and up, kids had an economic role to play in the household,” says Dalton Conley, sociologist, NYU professor and author of “Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know About the Science of Raising Children But Were Too Exhausted to Ask.”

“Today, as sociologist Viviana Zelizer says, kids are emotionally priceless and economically worthless. They’re just a big sinkhole of our time, attention and money, and yet at the same time, we think of them as our most important life project,” says Conley. This idea that parents must invest in their kids for years is now even codified into law. For instance, while traditional markers of adulthood were set at 18 or 21, the Affordable Care Act has now extended the age limit for children to be on their parents’ health insurance to 26.

Why the shift? It boils down to the fact the economy now requires more technical knowledge, so children need more education than before.

The rest of the article then goes on to describe how Dalton uses data to tackle 10 important parenting issues. But, this early part highlights the changing nature of childhood, from an age where children could contribute economically to the family (and many children did not survive because of poor health) to an era where wealthier families have fewer children and parents pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into each child.

“Who had richer parents, doctors or artists?”

NPR looks at how the jobs and incomes of parents influence the same outcomes among their children:

After some poking around, we figured out how to settle the argument. It allowed us to look at the same group of people in 1979 and 2010 — from a time when most were teenagers to the time when they were middle-aged and, for the most part, gainfully employed…

Who's doing better than their parents?

Based on this chart, it looks like the jobs of parents that are linked to better outcomes for their children require more education and are higher-skilled. This would seem to line up with findings from the Pew Economic Mobility Project about what traits are linked to upward social mobility:

This research reveals:

  • College graduates were over 5 times more likely to leave the bottom rung than non-college graduates.
  • Dual-earner families were over 3 times more likely to leave the bottom rung than single-earner families.
  • Whites were 2 times more likely to leave the bottom rung than blacks.

Additionally, Pew’s analysis examined the intersection between income and wealth, and found that the health of family balance sheets—including accumulated savings and wealth—are related to income mobility prospects. Households with financial capital, such as liquid savings or other readily available assets such as stocks, were more likely to leave the bottom of the economic ladder. In other words, movement up the income and wealth ladders was connected, and economically secure families were also the most likely to be upwardly mobile.

So in addition to parental education and the type of job one’s parent has, going to college, having two-income families, race, and wealth matter quite a bit. Overcoming these factors is not necessarily easy: “In fact, 43 percent of Americans raised at the bottom of the income ladder remain stuck there as adults, and 70 percent never even make it to the middle.”

Commercials that market smartphones as education devices shouldn’t fool many

In the past few months, I’ve heard several commercials for smartphones that suggest kids can and will use them for educational purposes. When your child needs help on their homework, they can whip out their phone and find the answer.

Who do they think they are fooling? While parents want to hear about helping their kids succeed in school (this is an American constant over the decades), these commercials offer implausible possibilities. Kids could use their phone for homework or studying. But, I suspect the smartphone is used for two other tasks that will far outweigh educational purposes: social interaction (texting, chatting, Facebook, etc.) and media consumption (music, YouTube, TV and movies, etc.). The real education provided here might be in how to be a media-saturated, 21st century American kid.

This may be effective marketing but it also hints at another issue: the idea that new technological devices automatically lead to more learning. Where is the evidence for this? We can argue that kids needs to keep up with technology to understand and use it for their good like applying for jobs. We can argue the new technology engages kids. We can argue the technology can open up new opportunities like forming and maintaining beneficial relationships or learning how to code. But, suggesting it actually leads to more learning is a more difficult case to make.

My conclusion: such commercials play off the interests of parents who would say they want to help their kids succeed without marshalling much evidence that the new smartphone will help kids learn.