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Posts Tagged ‘family’

Family Wages

In 1800, most American families were strictly patriarchal. Men deployed the women, youth, children, and, in some instances, the apprentices, servants, and slaves of the household on behalf of the family business. They virtually owned those lives. “Over the past two centuries,” however, “this patriarchal family system collapsed, as household heads lost control over their sons, wives, and servants.”

So writes the eminent historical demographer Steven Ruggles in his 2015 presidential address to the Population Association of America. (Presidential addresses provide opportunities for academics to think big.) He describes this change and then explains it as largely the result of fluctuations in young men’s wages over the past two centuries. Ruggles goes on to claim that in the twenty-first century the American family is not just changing but is unraveling, again as a result of what has happened to young men’s wages.

Ruggles’ is not the only explanation for the collapse of the patriarchal system (see below), but it is well-documented from the massive volumes of census data that he has archived as head of the Minnesota Population Center.

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The Grandma (and pa) Effect

Lily Tomlin’s star turn, the recent movie, “Grandma,” presents–alongside a lot of over-the-top histrionics and screaming–a key truth about the role of grandparents today. More so than in previous generations, grandparents today provide a safety net for and probably bond with grandchildren. And the grandparents who do so are disproportionately grandmas.

In an era when Americans worry about the durability of the family–well, Americans have worried about the family in almost every era–grandparents have become, perhaps with little notice, more important in various ways. The reason starts with simple demography: There are more grandparents in more young people’s lives.

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Untangling the Race Gap

Many efforts have been made to explain the persisting black-white gap in economic attainment. It is particularly puzzling because there was considerable progress in closing that gap in the decades after World War II. And then the closing slowed down. The mid-1990s seemed to bring more progress for black employment and wages, but the 21st century – especially the Great Recession – has seen retrograde movement. Moreover, as sociologists Becky Petit and Bruce Western have shown, the standard economic indicators we use, such average income, underestimate the width of the racial gap because they typically ignore the disproportionately high percentage of black men in prison or effectively out of the labor force.[1]

When the General Social Survey asks respondents to choose an explanation for this persisting gap, about half – white, black, and Hispanic – choose blacks’ lower “chances for education” and lower “motivation or willpower” as factors (although about half of blacks and Hispanics also choose the discrimination explanation).[2] Social scientists have explored more complex anayses. The accounts can be sorted into ones that stress the lasting effects of slavery and Jim Crow – often emphasized in this blog; ones that stress current circumstances like remaining discrimination or the suburbanization of jobs; and ones that stress combinations of the two, such as how lacking family wealth makes it harder for youths to go to college just when college-going has become more important.

In a new paper [gated], University of Michigan sociologist Deirde Bloome presents a sophisticated analysis that points to contemporary conditions that have stymied the closing of the black-white gap in family income; it points more to the family part than the income part of family income.

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The Giving Season… and Era

Every time I cash in on being (just barely) a senior citizen – at the movie line, on the subway, for example – I feel a twinge of guilt. The elderly, on average, can better afford such items than can young adults, especially those raising small children. Yet the system of discounts for age, like much else these days – say, Medicare vs. Medicaid – is slanted toward seniors. The logic is rooted in an earlier time.

Back in the day – say, before the ’60s – the assumption was that most old people could make it through their sunset years only with financial and personal help from their grown children. In last few decades, the flow of money and of energy has been largely going the other way (see earlier post).

In two new overview papers (pdf and pdf), sociologists Judith Seltzer and Suzanne Bianchi document the help many American seniors are giving their adult children long past the school years, be it directly with money or through help such as babysitting. (Bianchi, a terrific scholar of American family life, passed away recently, much too soon.) Among the less well-off, parents might largely help by re-opening a bedroom at home or providing after-school care. One study found that about 3 of 10 pre-schoolers are with grandparents when the parents are at work. Among the most affluent, parental help can include buying 20-somethings their own Manhattan apartments (see here and here).

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Back Home

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Studio (source)

One of the major lifestyle changes of the twentieth century was the dramatic increase in the proportion of Americans who lived alone. [1] Virtually outlawed in Early America, rarely done in the early twentieth century, it became a stage of life for many Americans, especially for elderly women, by the end of the century. (In 2000, about one-third of American women 65 and older were living alone.) The question of whether this trend is a good or bad thing has been a matter of concern. Eric Klinenberg’s recent best-seller, Going Solo, conveys the positive side of the discussion (see also this earlier post).

Another side of the discussion is trying to make sense of why Americans increasingly chose to live alone. Is it because Americans became increasingly disaffected with family or because Americans became increasingly able to afford their own living spaces? The recent economic shocks we have gone through provide a way to contrast people’s “tastes” for solo living versus their budgets for solo living.

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The ’60s Turn 50

We have a commemoration going on about the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the great social changes, such as the Emancipation Proclamation, which accompanied it. There’s another anniversary coming up over the next 12 months or so: the 50th anniversary of “The ‘60s,” by which I mean the 1960s as a distinct social, cultural era. It did not really begin in 1960 nor end in 1970. It began, culturally speaking, roughly in 1963-64 and petered out in the early-to-mid 1970s. If one is looking for a start date, perhaps the March on Washington, August 28, 1963, is a good marker (video); or President Kennedy’s assassination, November 22, 1963 (video); or the Beatles’ arrival in America, February 7, 1964 (video). Somewhere around then.

People often think that their time – particularly the period of their youth – is the fulcrum of history (see this study). Everything before we were about 14 or 15 is old, everything after is totally new. (Novelist Willa Cather famously wrote that “the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts”; historian Warren Sussman preferred 1905.) We are usually wrong. Some periods, however, are distinct and fateful for different reasons. For the generation that grew to adulthood in the 1960s, it was about rapid cultural change, a change apparently set off by earlier, rapid demographic change.

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Paying Attention to the Kids

Whether Americans are doing right by their kids is a recurrent subject of often bitter debate. With controversies about the “tiger mom,” or “helicopter parents,” or career women “dumping” their children on others, or men doing their share, there is no end of worry about whether 21st-century American parents are properly committed to their children.

Some recent data suggests that American parents in the last generation have been at least trying harder than parents did decades ago. They are spending more money on their kids and, given their work schedules, spending more time with their kids. This trend developed in the face of other trends have made attending to kids more and more difficult: the growth of single parenting, the entry of most mothers into the labor force, and the exacerbated financial strains on middle- and working-class families. While parents are making the effort, as is so often the case these days, widening inequality makes it harder for some parents and kids than others.

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