What Do the “Haves” Have, That the “Have-Not’s” Have Not?

24 Feb 2017

Family inequality is entwined with inequalities of class, both feeding them and being fed by them.

Inequality is on the rise in the Western world. It is often measured by a number of factors such as: inequality in wealth, income and employment opportunities, in education, in health, and in access to health care and other resources, in human capital, in intergenerational mobility, etc…

Yet one important factor is less-often considered: family inequality. Yet family inequality is entwined with inequalities of class, both feeding them and being fed by them.

The Social Trends Institute invited professors and scholars of law, sociology, economics, public policy, demography and political economy to an experts meeting in Rome to present new research on these intersections. 

The papers presented at the gathering, “Family Inequality: Causes & Consequences in Europe & the Americas,” will be published in a book with the same title by Cambridge University Press, and be made available on open access.

The authors not only represent various academic disciplines, but also contribute diverse perspectives to the debate surrounding these issues. So while there are differences in how each might approach turning the vicious cycles into virtuous ones, there is nevertheless broad agreement about the facts and their importance.

Intended to be more than the sum of its parts, the meeting focused discussion on different phases of the issue. Presenters and respondents first laid out “the increasingly unequal socioeconomic character of family life.” 

University of Wisconsin’s Marcy Carlson presented evidence that the inequality of disposable income in families in different social strata is increasing, and that real wages for the college educated are on the rise while they remain stagnant for those without degrees.

Carlson was followed by Albert Esteve from Barcelona’s Center for Demographic Studies.  His research focused on Latin American families, highlighting many of the same family demography indicators as Carlson’s research in America and Europe, and finding many similar trends. Exceptionally, higher education levels were less important to increasing family stability in Latin America than in the North.

The discussion then moved on to “diagnosing the causes of increasing inequality.” Andrew Cherlin, from Johns Hopkins, began with a paper entitled “Inequality Drives Family Formation.” Cherlin represented graphically that it is actually the middle sector of the population rather than the poorest who are being most affected by the economy and are seeing the highest growth in family desegregation. He insisted that with regard to family demography “one’s position in the labor market is a very big influence. Cultural change is real, but it is in interaction with your position.”

Nicholas Eberstadt from the American Enterprise Institute documented US men’s “flight from work,” and connected it to a flight from marriage and parental involvement.

Brienna Perrelli-Harris’ research highlighted some differences in the American and European cases. While her findings were the same as others that, for example, cohabitating unions are less stable than marriages, she noted that these differences were significantly greater in the US and the UK than in other countries. She also noted that country context matters more for partnership patterns than does education.

Having laid out the situation, the group proceeded to address the “consequences of growing family instability.” UVA’s Brad Wilcox and Joseph Price from Brigham Young addressed how family structure impacts economic growth, highlighting that countries with higher levels of two-parent families and marriage enjoy higher levels of economic growth.

Pompeu Fabra University’s Anna Garriga researched single-mother families and the educational level and employment of mothers as related to children’s cognitive performance. 

Lastly, “policies to bridge the growing family divide” were explored. University of Maryland sociologist Frances Goldscheider added consideration of gender roles to the mix of factors involved in union and fertility outcomes. She declared herself an optimist. Things can improve, she said, because “when underlying opportunities change, preferences change to adapt.”

Richard Reeves from the Brookings Institution’s Center on Children and Families proposed policies to either narrow the family gap or at least minimize its effects on children.  Noting, for example, that hourly workers are hindered from making stable child care arrangements by fluctuating shifts, making hourly work more predictable makes sense. 

Study after study reveals family instability to be detrimental to children’s welfare. And study after study demonstrates family structure polarization, which perpetuates and even exaggerates the cycles on both ends of the scale. 

Those with less education and less stable employment form less reliable unions that provide less stability to their children, who will therefore be more likely to perpetuate the pattern in their adult lives. The opposite pattern also holds. 

The main question remains where public policy and culture can most efficiently interject themselves into these equations to create a positive sum game for all.

Cherlin summed it up by noting that the meeting had revealed that “there is reasonable consensus on the facts and that there are social/cultural and economic arguments” as well as substantial overlaps regarding what to do about them, even between more liberal and more conservative thinkers, whom he complimented for being the sort who could listen to and engage with ideas without demonizing the “other side.”  He ended on “the hope that there is a similar overlap in family policy to get past the impasse we are in.”