Back Inequality: The Costs to Families


Inequality: The Costs to Families

Frances Goldscheider, University Professor of Sociology, emerita, Brown University;

Socioeconomic inequality has been ballooning around the world, particularly among industrialized countries. Much concern has been voiced about the consequences of this trend for increases in poverty and risks to political stability, but the books reviewed here teach us that the costs to families are great as well. Instability coming from socioeconomic inequality undermines couple unions, particularly in an era of changing gender roles, and children’s well-being is put at risk. Although these two books could not be more different, they share this theme, and adduce a wealth of evidence to support it, much of it very painful. We suffer with these suffering families.

Philip Cohen’s book, Enduring Bonds, is essentially a compilation of the essays he has written over the past decade for his blog. As such, the material is somewhat scatter-shot, addressing issues of the day, based primarily on the analysis of census and survey data.

Edin and Nelson’s book, Doing the Best I Can, goes far to substantiate Cohen’s argument. While their methods could not be more different (Edin and Nelson carry out in-depth interviews with poor fathers obtained by the authors going to live in the poor neighborhoods being studied), their portrait of how the economic forces unleashed by inequality undermine committed relationships makes clear that just telling people to get married (even if they listened) would do little to stabilize the lives of the families that they observed. Each book, though, brings important insights to the overall challenge of stabilizing incomes (and, incidentally, reducing endemic work-family conflict).

Both books are a delight to read and study. Cohen takes on the widest range of topics. His use of evidence is often fascinating. Historians of the family and interested social scientists have noted that parenthood has recently been transformed, with children becoming valued less for their ability to be useful little workers and more for their uniqueness (cf. Viviana Zelizer’s study of children’s insurance policies, Pricing the Priceless Child). To indicate the continuing power of sexism, Cohen documents the proportions of females among New York Times bylines, showing that men have an easier time getting their stories published, while women are still too often relegated to stories on style and families.

Both books solidly address the problem of racism in the United States (which while not such a prominent problem in European countries, nevertheless appears in many guises). Edin and Nelson’s sample of poor fathers is approximately evenly balanced between white and black men, often living in nearby neighborhoods (despite the fact that the neighborhoods themselves are normally quite racially segregated). Race clearly makes a difference: young impoverished white fathers normally have access to a stronger network of stably employed relatives who can provide more opportunities for jobs, housing, and the like than otherwise comparable black fathers, whose relatives are often even more impoverished, addicted, and imprisoned than they are (if they haven’t already been killed).

As a likely result, the white fathers cling more closely to a traditional view of fatherhood (founded on male incomes) and more distant father-child relationships. In contrast, the young black fathers in the study have collectively created a new vision of fatherhood, given their repeated failures at being ‘good providers’, that essentially entails maintaining close social and emotional bonds with their children, what traditionalists might even call a ‘mother-child’ type of bond. This is apparent in their prominently displayed joy at impending fatherhood and in their far stronger efforts at maintaining visitation rights than white fathers in the same situation, when the children’s mothers have given up on them as useful partners.

Race is also a major theme of Cohen’s. He delights in showing whites’ fear of blacks, which has the unfortunate result that black men are all too often killed by police in the United States. More centrally, he reviews concerns about the black family, which has led whites in the growth of births outside marital unions and created the problem of fatherhood that Edin and Nelson’s poor black fathers confront.

Inestability coming from socioeconomic inequality undermines couple unions

While neither book pretends to be a policy study, it is clear that two issues are central in contributing to the pain these families, fathers, mothers, and children, experience. One is rooted in the gender changes at work. The other is the instabilities that unbridled capitalism tends to produce.

The gender challenge took root with changes in men’s and women’s productive roles that emerged with the industrial revolution and the demographic changes it impelled. Not that long ago, men and women shared a common ‘sphere’ of household production, the essence of subsistence agriculture. The emergence of new industrial and commercial jobs increasingly spurred men to leave the household to take such jobs. However, with many fewer children and longer lives, domestic women became underemployed, so that when jobs emerged that called for ‘female’ labor (requiring less strength over shorter hours), women joined men in their public sphere, taking paid employment for much the same reasons men had, to better support their families.

This change stressed families, as women added support obligations, creating the ‘second shift’ for them. This led some countries (particularly in Scandinavia) to develop family policies that reduced women’s work-family conflict. They enacted and gradually expanded programs of family leave, and even more centrally, of subsidized, high-quality childcare.

Families need stability, not just of earnings but also of time

But even the Scandinavian countries have found that this is not enough. The additional burden of the ‘second shift’ for women disadvantages women in the workplace, as employers and supervisors assume (normally correctly) that female employees will put their family’s needs ahead of those of the workplace. They need to leave to pick up children from childcare centers or make dinner for their families, while men are freer to work longer hours, travel more for work, and generally feel that their major obligation to their families remains simply to provide. Hence, the emergence of policies providing “daddy days” of family leave.

Further, their large public sectors allow and even encourage workers to take family leave. (particularly men, who increasingly have access to wage subsidies they would lose if they did not take it) Their robust private sectors, however, are less enthusiastic, preferring workers who are willing to change their work schedules with little notice. But what families need is stability, not just of earnings but also of time.

Here is where unbridled capitalism becomes so problematic, as both books testify for the United States. It provides no state-subsidized childcare, so families must juggle constantly to provide coverage for their children, particularly those in the low-wage sectors of the economy. Too many children end up at risk, alone at home, or even unsupervised in cars or parks. Providing substantial notice before work hours are changed is rare, but it is as important as providing stable incomes. Countries wishing to obtain the benefits of the free market need to tame it, at least to the extent that the costs to families (like those to the environment) are assessed as part of the cost of doing business, or some combination of state support and protective regulations is put in place.




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