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Family Characteristics & Social Inequality

Examining Wealth Inequality

In a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded project, IPR sociologist Christine Percheski and Duke University’s Christina Gibson-Davis examine wealth inequality among families with children in the United States. In Demography, Percheski and Gibson-Davis compare trends from 1989–2013 for wealth levels among “America’s dependents”: the elderly and households with children. They discover that the wealth gap between elderly households and households with children has substantially increased over time, growing most among the least wealthy households. In a second paper, Percheski and Gibson-Davis analyze trends in wealth by household structure for the nonelderly population. They find families with married parents have a substantially higher net worth than all other family structures, including married couples without children. Different investment patterns partially explain this, specifically homeownership. Families with married parents are far more likely to own their home, and homeownership is the primary way that people accumulate wealth in the United States.

Marriage, Family Structure, and Maternal Employment Trajectories

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IPR sociologist Christine Percheski focuses on family demography, economic inequality, and health policy. Her research is particularly concerned with understanding the well-being of American women and families with children.

Cohabiting with a romantic partner without marrying has become common in Western countries. A study by Percheski looks at whether the employment of women with children was similar for married and cohabiting mothers. She examines data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a longitudinal study of a birth cohort of children born between 1998 and 2000 in large U.S. urban areas. She focused on whether a mother went back to work in the first year of her child’s life and how many hours she worked per week for five years after her child was born. She finds that cohabiting mothers return to work sooner and work more hours than married mothers. The data reveal that cohabiting mothers and single mothers have similar employment patterns, while unmarried mothers who later marry develop work patterns similar to married mothers. Married mothers who divorced eventually increased the number of hours they worked. Marital status matters when it comes to employment for mothers, even for those in a stable cohabiting relationship. Percheski speculates that cohabiting mothers work more because they are not confident they can rely on their partners’ income if the relationship ends. Percheski writes that this “inequality may have consequences for women’s health, happiness, and well-being as well as that of their children and partners.”

The Impact of Changing Income Levels on Children

It’s well-established that children from high-income families fare better than their low-income counterparts by a number of measures, but researchers are still trying to understand better what happens when that income status changes during childhood. In a study for the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, IPR developmental psychologist Terri Sabol and her co-authors including current graduate IPR research assistant (RA) student Courtenay Kessler and former IPR graduate RA student Lindsay Till Hoyt, compare over time the health and well-being of children who experience four distinct economic circumstances from birth to age 15. Dividing a sample of more than 1,300 children into four groups—those who experienced either a consistently high income or consistently low income or an increasing income or decreasing incomes—they find that of all groups those who experienced consistently high incomes had better outcomes with regard to psychosocial well-being, risk-taking, and physical functioning. They also show that the children who grew up in families where income decreased experienced numerous adverse health outcomes, despite having the apparent protective effects of a higher income at the beginning of their lives. In the past, such longitudinal studies have rarely tracked changing income across different stages of childhood. Their research suggests that the connection between income and well-being is not set in stone at birth, but shaped by what children experience during their development.

Rethinking the Value of Unpaid Care Work

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly began measuring the time people spend on unpaid care work—often a burden carried by women and girls—and its contribution to the well-being of humanity. IPR anthropologist Sera Young looks at the complex and varied experiences of those doing unpaid care work in a recent study. Young and her colleagues conducted research over two months in four villages in rural Tanzania to consider how women think about unpaid care work. Women involved in the study were asked to take photographs of things that brought them joy and sorrow when doing care work and farm work. Young finds that while aspects of farming and childcare can take a physical toll on participants, the women in the study also experienced joy, satisfaction, and fulfilment from the ability to prepare food for their families. The researchers argue that the value of unpaid care work should not only be about quantifying the time people spend on it or its monetary value, but values such as love, empathy, and compassion that are exchanged through caregiving should be considered. Their findings suggest that women in Tanzania subvert cultural norms that say women are primarily responsible for food security and the well-being of their families and “redeploy them in everyday practice to exercise their agency and affirm their identities.” They suggest that the “burden” of unpaid care work may need to be calibrated to account for diverse cultural and geographical contexts.