Opportunity costs: How much does it matter where Jay and Wally go to high school?

Two weeks ago I speculated about what an extra $50,000 in annual income would mean for how Jay and Wally grow up.  I looked at national data and concluded that the lion’s share of that money would end up going into their educations—either as private school tuition or (as several readers pointed out) as a mortgage payment in a high-rent suburb with well-regarded public schools.

Since then I’ve been chewing on the question: To what extent will the K-12 schools Jay and Wally attend determine how much opportunity and success they have in life?  And, related to that question, to what extent will the amount of money Caroline and I make affect our children’s chances in life?

These are, I think, critical questions to come up with some kind of precise or at least well-reasoned answer to.  A desire to give your kids the best possible future drives many of the biggest decisions parents make in life—from career decisions, to where to live, to where to send one’s kids to school.  Given that, it’s worth trying to get a handle on how the success equation actually works- to make sure we’re actually putting the right amount of resources and energy into providing the right kinds of inputs.

Family Income and Children’s Outcomes

The relationship between family income and children’s outcomes is notoriously difficult to tease out.  For sure, average parental income is higher among kids who attend Ivy League colleges than it is among kids who drop-out of high school.  But just because high-parental income correlates with Ivy League matriculation doesn’t mean it causes it.  There are all sorts of other characteristics that tend to be packaged together with high parental income, including high parental educational attainment, certain genetic endowments, and a family culture that promotes educational success.  Because these characteristics are found together so often, it’s hard to disentangle them, and hard to determine which ones are really driving the train.

One of the most authoritative studies of the relationship between income and achievement is a book called What Money Can’t Buy: Family Income and Children’s Life Chances by Susan Mayer, professor of public policy at the University of Chicago.  The title gives away Mayer’s conclusion: Income doesn’t do much to boost kids’ prospects in life.

Mayer is concerned about welfare policy, so she focuses her analysis on low-income families and the extent to which cash transfers to parents can help kids climb out of poverty (she concludes they don’t do much).  But her analysis is applicable across the income spectrum.

As you might expect, if additional family income doesn’t make a big difference for poor kids, it makes even less of a difference for middle class kids who are already well-provided for.  Mayer argues that kids need access to books and exposure to educational experiences like trips to the museum, neither of which cost that much to provide, and that once a minimum standard of material provision is reached, each additional dollar of family income doesn’t do a lot to give a kid a leg up in life.  In her own words:

Some child-specific possessions and activities, such as the number of books a child has and how often a child visits a museum, do influence how well children score on cognitive assessments. But parents’ income is only weakly related to whether children have these amenities. This is probably because these items cost so little that their distribution depends more on parents’ tastes than their income.  Thus the amenities that are important to children’s outcomes are weakly related to parents’ income, whereas the amenities that are strongly related to parents’ income are not very important to children’s outcomes.

Mayer performs a variety of statistical analyses to draw this conclusion, all of which are accessible at a conceptual level and are very elegant to behold.  I’d encourage people to read the introduction to What Money Can’t Buy, which is available on Google Books.

School Quality and Children’s Outcomes

So what about school quality and children’s life outcomes?  Money certainly does buy access to more highly regarded K-12 schools, whether public or private, and it’s hard to see how that couldn’t help.  But Mayer’s analysis would suggest that such access is not hugely consequential for how kids turn out in life: Smart kids from families that value education are going to do well regardless of where they go to school just as less smart kids from less educationally-centered families are going to have a harder time of it wherever they are.

Intuitively, that doesn’t seem right.  How is it possible that you could take the same kid from the same family and place him in Philips Andover or the worst high school in Boston and he’d achieve the same in life either way?  But that’s kind of what academic research suggests—that who you are and what kind of family culture you come from matter a whole lot more to life success than where you live or what school you go to.

I read several papers over the last couple weeks on this topic.  They’re listed at the end of this post.  The most thought-provoking one among them was “Sibling, Peer, Neighbor, and Schoolmate  Correlations as Indicators of the Importance of Context for Adolescent Development.”

It’s a very accessible paper and I uploaded it to Growing Sideways so that anyone who wants to can read it.  The authors, public policy researchers at Northwestern, measured both achievement on a vocabulary test and delinquency rates (how often kids did graffiti, shoplifted, damaged property, etc.).  Then they looked for correlations between the scores kids received and different groups of people in their lives: their siblings, their neighbors, their grademates, their best friends.

Before looking at the results, I should note that the authors were looking at correlations, not causation.  My SAT score is highly correlated with my siblings’ SAT scores, for example, but that doesn’t mean that our relationships with each other caused us to get those scores.  As the authors of this paper note, what a correlation does is establish an upper-bound for causation: The actual degree of causation could be a lot lower than the degree of correlation, but it will never be higher.

Anyway, let’s get to the fun stuff.  The following chart shows the correlations between students and the people in their lives on a vocabulary test:

As the chart shows, there is a very strong correlation between identical twins—even stronger than the correlation between fraternal twins—which suggests that genetic ability plays a big role in verbal aptitude.  There’s also a very low correlation between grademates—which suggests that the kids you go to school with don’t have much of an effect on your facility with language.

One interesting piece of the chart is the correlation between best friends—at .44 it’s pretty high, nearly as high as the correlation between siblings.  The authors were worried, though, that the correlation between best friends reflected a selection effect—basically kids of similar aptitude gravitate towards each other.  For that reason the authors came up with a measure they called “Adjusted Best Friends” which tried to control for selection effects—and as you can see the correlation is much lower once those controls are put in place.

Here are the correlations between delinquency rates.  They’re considerably lower, across the board, than the correlations for verbal achievement:

In the Context of Family Life

So what does research like this mean for how a family plan’s it life?  Well, for one, the research I’ve cited is just a few papers and shouldn’t be taken as anything close to a definitive statement on what is an incredibly complicated set of interrelationships.  And for two, all families’ circumstances are different, and the types of choices that make sense for one family and one set of parents don’t necessarily make sense for another.

What I can do is write a little about how Caroline and I have talked about issues of income and school quality when thinking about the long-term decisions we’ll need to make as a family.

We both agree that we want Jay and Wally to be highly skilled and that we want them to achieve life success in the conventional American sense: good colleges, good jobs, the respect of their peers, influence, etc.

But we also think that Jay and Wally already have substantial advantages in their pursuit of those things, chief among them the fact that they come from a family with well-educated parents who possess above-average rates of cultural capital.

In concrete terms, this cultural capital means that Caroline and I have a sense of what it takes to be successful in school and beyond, and that we’re able to incorporate that knowledge into the day-to-day experience of raising our kids.  And I think it’s hard to overstate just how hugely important this is in determining how well kids do in life. (Pam Davis-Kean of the University of Michigan expresses this idea in her paper The Influence of Parent Education and Family Income on Child Achievement: “Parents’ ability to form accurate beliefs and expectations regarding their children’s performance are essential in structuring the home and educational environment so that they can excel in postschooling endeavors.”)

So, when I think about the relationship between our family’s income, the K-12 schools Jay and Wally will attend, and how well they’ll do on life, I think that they’re well-provided for, even if Caroline and I never experience a dramatic income bump or they don’t attend one of the best public or private high schools in the country.

Now, it feels a little cold to say that Jay and Wally will have “enough” opportunity in life and that as a result it doesn’t make sense to dramatically reorient our family life in terms of jobs, daily schedules, and where we live in order to provide them with even more opportunity.  And indeed, when you’re talking about providing for your kids’ futures, it can be hard to accept that there is ever such a thing as “enough.”

But the thing I remind myself is that every family decision is a matter of tradeoffs.  Earning the money to send Jay and Wally to top-shelf K-12 schools would require Caroline and I to make different career choices and to adopt a different daily lifestyle.  That  lifestyle would probably take away from other aspects of our family culture that we value- and my sense is that the marginal gains for Jay and Wally’s opportunities in life are too small to justify those decisions.

Readings that Contributed to this Post:

Can Family Socioeconomic Resources Account for Racial and Ethnic Test Score Gaps?” by Greg Duncan and Katherine Magnuson

The influence of parent education and family income on child achievement: the indirect role of parental expectations and the home environment” by Pamela Davis-Kean

Sibling, Peer, Neighbor, and Schoolmate  Correlations as Indicators of the Importance of Context for Adolescent Development by Greg Duncan, et al.

What Money Can’t Buy by Susan Mayer

Related Reading from Growing Sideways

What would an extra $50k a year mean for Jay and Wally’s childhoods?

School quality and housing costs


School Quality and Housing Costs

Thursday’s post “What would an extra $50k a year mean for Jay and Wally’s childhoods?” sparked a terrific discussion in the comments section.  Readers wrote about the choices and tradeoffs their families are considering around where to live, how much money they feel they need to make, and what kinds of childhoods they want for their kids.  For me, receiving so many substantive replies was equivalent to the magic moment in that viral video Caine’s arcade, where the little boy comes back from lunch to find people lined up to play his homemade games.  So thank you Carter, Oonagh, Jill, Jessica, Marc, Amanda, Heather, Sarah, and Karen!

Several commenters made the point that I was undervaluing the degree to which the price of a house is a function of the quality of the school district where it’s located.  Or, as one friend with young kids who recently paid a premium to gain access to a strong public school put it, “People who live in wealthy suburbs with great public schools are essentially paying for private-school tuition.  It just comes bundled with granite countertops and walk-in closets.”

I agree that the cost of housing can’t be written off entirely as a “material” acquisition on par with the type of car you drive and the quality of the pans you cook with.  Which left me curious to find out just how much of the price of a house is determined by the quality of the public schools that serve it.

It turns out to be a hard question to answer.  I read two studies, one based on the real estate market in metro St. Louis and the other based on home prices in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.  Both papers point out that effects of school quality are hard to disentangle from the effects of neighborhood quality: Houses served by good public schools tend to be located in more upscale neighborhoods, making it hard to differentiate the premium you’re paying just for the schools and the premium you’re paying for the right to live within walking distance of a chai latte.

In order to tease these two effects apart, the researchers compare houses of similar quality located just across a school zoning line from each other- the thinking being that the two houses share the same neighborhood at the same time that they’re zoned for different public schools.  They find that housing prices increase 10-15 percent for every standard deviation difference in the quality of the public schools to which those houses are zoned.  The authors of the paper on metro St. Louis further argue that housing prices increase exponentially with the quality of the schools, so that people are paying the greatest premiums, percentage wise, in towns at the top end of the school quality spectrum like Newton, MA (a town which a couple commenters are considering moving into).  The authors wrote,  “As school quality increases, competition from other buyers creates an increasingly tight housing market, because the housing supply in these areas is often very inelastic, as most metropolitan areas have a fixed housing stock in the short run.”

Writing now in more personal terms, I think that where to live when kids hit school-age is one of the hardest and most interesting decisions in the life of a family.  It’s hard because most of us won’t get everything we want- we’ll either stretch our housing budgets, or incur longer than desirable commutes, or trade down in school quality.  And I think it’s a uniquely interesting decision because it forces parents to think about what they value in ways that few other decisions do.  Really everything’s on the table: education, money, daily lifestyle, long term aspirations, the value of diversity.

Caroline and I talk about these issues a lot and we haven’t come to any firm conclusions.  Partly that’s because we’re at the mercy of the academic job market and don’t know which part of the country we’re going to end up settling down in.  I do know that part of me is relieved that Caroline’s career compelled us out of Philadelphia, because I loved the city and would have wanted to stay there, but I have no idea how we would have navigated the schools issue had we still been there when Jay was ready for kindergarten.

The other issue raised in the comments that I wanted to respond to is the question of how important it is for a kid to have the same type of “stuff” that his peers do.  As Jessica wrote, “According to my husband’s philosophy, at least, the $100 backpack is much more important if all of your friends also have the $100 backpack, than if they have the $40 or even the $20 version, and buying that $100 backpack is a small price to pay for a child’s (mental) health and safety.”

No easy answers here, either.  Caroline and I talked about this issue on the drive home this afternoon from Grosse Pointe, where we’d gone for pancakes and a driving tour of the auto industry mansions.  Caroline, who always has a a moderate and level-headed take on these things, thought that it wasn’t a bad thing for a kid to be a little out of step with his peers- so that maybe he gets the backpack but doesn’t get the shoes.  She also said that if you were to give a kid a choice between going to an average high school where he’d been on even footing economically with his peers, and going to a good high school where he’d be economically disadvantaged compared to his peers, most kids would probably choose the better high school even if it meant that as a result they’d feel a little self-conscious about money.  (Caroline added that a kids’ real response to this question would likely be: “Mom and Dad, work harder so I can go to the good school and have the right gear.”)

Finally, I’d just say thank you again to the commenters for propelling this discussion forward.  I find these to be an endlessly interesting and important set of issues.  I will certainly write a lot more about them in the future, and I hope many of you will continue to join me in the process.

Related posts from Growing Sideways

What would an extra $50k a year mean for Jay and Wally’s childhoods?

What would an extra $50k a year mean for Jay and Wally’s childhoods?

This morning at breakfast we watched out the window as our neighbor’s nine-year-old daughter Ava walked to school.  She was bundled in a coat and scarf, which maybe was a touch warm for the weather, and carried her trumpet at her side.

We see Ava walk by most mornings and Jay often plays with her in the afternoons when she comes outside to kick a soccer ball.  And this morning I was struck by how nice her childhood seems.  She has a ten-minute walk to school.  She plays an instrument, she plays soccer, she’s a Girl Scout (who sold us those Thin Mints I’m always writing about), and her parents are around a lot.  I don’t know her family very well, but in broad strokes she’s got the kind of childhood I’d want for Jay and Wally.

Which got me thinking about how money influences the kind of childhood a kid experiences.

There’s still some uncertainty about what our adult standard of living will look like, but between Caroline’s academic salary and my less predictable freelance income, we should be able to earn at least, say, $100,000 a year.  And my sense is that that would be enough to give Jay and Wally a lifestyle that roughly resembles Ava’s. We could afford to live in our neighborhood, where homes sell for under $275,000, and we’d send our kids to the Ann Arbor public schools, which are perfectly good.

But what if we found a way to earn more than $100,000?  It’s unlikely that we’ll ever be rich by the standard President Obama was pilloried for using—families that make more than $250,000 a year—but if we made it a priority we could probably earn an additional $50,000 a year.  What would that mean in terms of how Jay and Wally grew up?

To answer that question Caroline directed me to a report put out annually by the U.S. Department of Agriculture called Expenditures on Children By Families.  The report analyzes the amount of money that families at different income levels spend on their children.

The analysis is based on husband-wife households with two kids.  It breaks those households into three income groups:

  • Families earning less than $57,600 a year (Average=$36,840)
  • Families earning $57,600-$99,370 a year (Average=$77,500)
  • Families earning more than $99,370 a year (Average=$174, 530)

The amounts of money families spend on their children increase as kids get older, though only by about 15% from age 2 to age 15. If you average over the course of a childhood (defined in the report as ages 0-17), this is how much money families at the three income levels spend on a child each year:

The most striking thing about the chart, to me, is the relative similarity between what low income and middle income families spend compared with what high income families spend.  Put another way, high income families spend a lot more on their kids than other families do.

The following chart, recreated from page 18 of the report, breaks down expenditures on a child into seven categories.  The chart is based on expenditure percentages in a middle income home, which are similar but not identical to the way expenditures break down in lower and high income homes.

One thing that leaps out at me from the chart is housing (which includes mortgage payments, property taxes, rent, maintenance, utilities, and home furnishings like furniture and appliances).  Housing is the biggest contributor to the expense of raising a child.  It also seems to me to be one of the easiest places to save money without impacting the quality of life a child enjoys.

In Ann Arbor, for example, we could buy a house in our current neighborhood for $275,000 a year or we could buy one a mile away in Burns Park for $450,000.  Both neighborhoods are quiet, leafy, and filled largely with two-parent families.  Burns Park has nicer housing stock and is closer to campus.  Living there would put a big pinch on our household budget but it’s hard for me to see how it would really improve Jay and Wally’s childhoods.

This next chart is the one you’ve been waiting for.  It shows where the additional spending on a child goes as families move up the income scale.

High income families spend a lot more on their children over the course of their childhoods—almost double ($377,000) what middle income families spend ($226,920).

When I consider what that extra money gets you, I think in two categories: stuff and non-stuff.

Stuff includes housing, food, transportation, and clothing, which comprise 67 percent of the cost of raising a child.  Earning $150,000 a year versus earning $100,000 a year gets you more stuff, and better quality stuff, but I don’t think it does much to improve the quality of a kid’s childhood.  What does it matter if your parents drive a Honda or a BMW, or whether your backpack costs $40 or $100? Once a certain minimum standard has been reached, each additional dollar spent on more or better stuff doesn’t add a lot.  And that minimum standard can be reached easily with a family income of $100,000 a year.

What about non-stuff?  That includes health care and child care/education, which together comprise 25 percent of the cost of raising a child.

One interesting aspect of the data is that middle and high income families spend similar amounts on their children’s health care ($18,420 and $21,150 respectively from age 0-17).  To me this suggests two things: a) As families move from low to middle income one of the first places they divert their increased income is to health care; and b) There’s only so much you can spend on health care, at least for children who tend to be pretty healthy.

The other non-stuff category is child care/education.  Here’s where you see the single biggest gap between low, middle, and high income families in terms of total dollars spent.  Over the course of a childhood, low income families spend $22,710, middle income families spend $39,420, and high income families spend $84,870.  That’s a pretty staggering difference and it’s pretty obvious what accounts for it: daycare v. nannies when kids are young, and public v. private school when kids are older.

So, when Caroline and I think about how earning an additional $50,000 a year would impact Jay and Wally what we’re really thinking about is the value of private school.  I don’t have any data that tries to quantify the value of private school but I’ll do some digging.  Of course, the added value of private v. public school varies a lot depending on the quality of the public schools where you live.  In Philadelphia, where we lived until last August, the gap between the private and public schools was huge; in Ann Arbor I imagine it’s a lot smaller.

Before I wrap up, a few notes.  First, this discussion only includes expenditures on children through age 17, so it doesn’t include support for college, post-graduate education, and the transition to adulthood, which are obviously huge and consequential expenses.  Second, the expenditure categories don’t capture things like vacations and summer camp, which are both places where I’d expect to see big gaps between middle and high income families.  Third, I framed this post in deliberately simplistic terms in order to highlight top-level differences by income groups. I’d encourage people to read the USDA report and to raise questions in the comments section.

Overall, I’m interested in writing more about the tradeoffs that parents should consider as they think about how to organize family life.  What would we gain by earning an additional $50,000 a year?  What, if anything, would we have to give up to earn that money?  And how do the organization of time and the availability of money affect a family culture and children’s outcomes?

I look forward to thinking about these questions in future posts.

Related posts from Growing Sideways

School quality and housing costs

Escape fantasies: thoughts on living alone

First a confession: A couple weeks ago I was driving back from Trader Joe’s when I pulled over to the side of the road two blocks from home.  There was a bag of lettuce sitting in the passenger seat.  Caroline was home with Jay and Wally.  I opened the latest issue of The New Yorker, which I’d grabbed from the mailbox on my way to the car, and commenced to reading about the goings on at Davos.  After a long day I wasn’t quite ready to rejoin the family fray.

Recently I wrote about “priming effects”—the ways in which Caroline and I influence each other’s attitudes towards Jay and Wally.  When I reflected on my roadside detour, it occurred to me that maybe I’d been primed to want to spend some time alone by the book Going Solo, which I’d recently reviewed for The Christian Science Monitor.

Going Solo was written by NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg and it details “the extraordinary rise and surprising appeal” of living alone in America.  Today, 28 percent of all American households are single people living alone – or “singletons” as Klinenberg dubs them – which, is more than triple the rate of fifty years ago. As Klinenberg writes, “People who live alone … are now tied with childless couples as the most prominent residential type – more common than the nuclear family, the multigenerational home, and the roommate or group home.”

In Going Solo Klinenberg uses interviews to sketch what solo living looks like for people at different stages in life: 20-somethings, middle-aged people who divorced or never married, and the elderly whose partners have died.  The interviews are engrossing and reminded me all over again why I love good ethnography so much.

I won’t get too into the interviews here (my review has more detail and I’d certainly recommend reading the book which isn’t too long and reads quickly).  But I will quote from one of Klinenberg’s subjects, a 52-year-old Manhattan singleton named Charlotte who maybe was in the back of my mind as I pulled to the side of the road. “When you live alone, there’s no compromising,” she said.  “I do everything I feel like doing.  And it is totally self-indulgent.  It’s just all about you…I don’t think I want to tend to a living thing ever again.”

I spend a good number of hours each day tending to two living things.  And for the most part I don’t find myself yearning for more time alone than I have.  I get five mostly quiet hours to myself each morning when the boys are with their nanny, I get an hour in the late-afternoon to run, and I get 15 minutes at the end of each day while waiting in bed as Caroline goes downstairs to dream-feed Wally.  It’s this last little block of alone time that I enjoy the most: the day, done, and a few quiet minutes to myself before lights out.

That said, I still struggle sometimes with the more general need that arises as part of a family: the need to compromise when making major life choices.  The other night Caroline and I were watching an early episode of Breaking Bad in which the main character, Walt, argues with his wife after revealing to her that he has advanced lung cancer.  Walt wants to opt-out of treatment altogether, saying that he wants to feel as good as he can during whatever time he has left.  His wife responds by saying that Walt owes it not only to himself, but also to her and to their son to do everything he can to beat the disease.

As Caroline and I watched this together I found myself identifying strongly with Walt.  It seemed to me that at this most personal and pivotal moment in his life, he should get to decide for himself how he lives and dies.  Caroline had a different take.  She thought that as a husband and a father, Walt had obligations to other people, and that the choice was not entirely his own to make.

So it’s hard for me sometimes to accept that compromise in the context of a family means more than meeting halfway on the type of milk we buy (I’d opt for 2%, Caroline would prefer skim):  It also means compromising on more fundamental issues, too, like how many kids you have, or where you live, or how much time each partner devotes to his or her career.

Of course it helps when both partners in a marriage and all parties in a family share common views about what’s important in life.  But no alignment is ever perfect.  A few months ago Caroline and I spent an evening talking about our “escape fantasies”—the lives we’d choose for ourselves if all of a sudden we didn’t have any family obligations.  Caroline imagined she might move to Manhattan and rent a small apartment.  I said I’d abscond to the Himalayas.  So, our underlying dispositions are different even as we meet on the common ground of family life in suburban Ann Arbor.

I’ve written previously about how I value the friction that comes from being a part of a family.  Getting married and having kids means adding friction and giving up complete freedom of choice in exchange for the opportunity to share in some of the most meaningful relationships one can have in a life.

I’d take that trade nine ways to Sunday, even as I have moments like the other week when I’m not quite ready to go home yet.

Related posts from Growing Sideways

The value of friction in everyday life, part 2: embracing boredom

More on why low-income fathers leave but don’t “flee”

This morning I posted about “reasons to pause before judging other parents.”  Within ten minutes two readers had replied with thoughtful, sharply worded critiques of my argument.  In both cases they said that it seemed like I was countenancing bad behavior among low-income men, either by ignoring the plain facts that many low-income fathers are uninvolved with their children, or by excusing their behavior as the result of “circumstances” beyond their control.

Just now I was lying down to nap with Jay but I couldn’t fall asleep.  I was nagged by the thought that I’d been sloppy in acquitting my argument.  So once Jay fell asleep I tiptoed out of the guest room and back upstairs to my computer with two thoughts in mind.

First, I want to share more evidence from Kathryn Edin’s research which explains the context in which nonmarital relationships fall apart and men fade from the picture in the years after a baby is born.

Edin begins with the generous assumptions that most couples want to make things work and most men want to be good fathers.  Why does she assume this?  Because that’s what they consistently say in interview reports and, after cross-referencing interview responses, she thinks it’s reasonable to take them at their words.  So for her, the puzzle goes like this: Men and women who’ve just had a baby together want to make their relationship work and the men want to be involved fathers, but in the overwhelming majority of cases neither of those things ends up happening. So what goes wrong?

She cites three factors that lead relationships to fail and/or prevent couples from marrying:

  1. Norms about the standard of living required for marriage.  Edin reports that low-income couples believe that they need to be financially stable before they can get married.  Their definition of financial stability hues closely to what other sociologists have referred to as the middle-class ideal- an ability to afford a house with a garage, two cars, and savings in the bank.  Without this degree of financial stability low-income couples tend to believe that the stress of making ends meet is going to take a terminal toll on their marriages which seems like a reasonable, pragmatic way to look at things.
  2. Relationship quality.  Edin writes that most nonmarital births occur “in the context of relationships of perilously low quality.”  The low-income men and women who have nonmarital births tend to be in relationships that are beset by infidelity and domestic violence, and take place in the context of crime, drugs, and failed educations.  Right after a couple has had a child they tend to say they want to make their relationship work, but  in most cases these are relationships that should be dissolved.
  3. Fear of divorce.  This, I think, is one of Edin’s most interesting findings and deserves more airtime than it gets.  Over and over again she hears low-income couples say they refrain from marrying because they believe that marriage is “holy” and they don’t want to end up divorced.  She writes that among the women she interviewed, “the stigma of a failed marriage was far worse than that of an out-of-wedlock birth…In one memorable interview, a mother quipped, ‘I don’t believe in divorce.  That’s why none of the women in my family are married.’”

So those are some of the reasons why low-income couples who have a nonmarital birth don’t end up staying together.  Now what about why low-income fathers don’t end up staying as involved in their kids’ lives as they say they want to?

Well, one of the biggest reasons is what sociologists call the “package deal” theory- that fathers’ relationships with their kids are mediated by their relationships with their kids’ mothers.  No relationship with the mother, no relationship with the kids.

Edin accepts the “package deal” hypothesis, but not completely.  She argues that even after relationships end, fathers continue to be involved with their kids at surprisingly high rates.  This is particularly true among African-Americans, and Edin hypothesizes that, given the very high rates of out-of-wedlock births in their community, African-Americans have been forced to develop cultural norms which facilitate continued paternal involvement even after the dissolution of fathers’ relationships with their babies’ mothers.

Edin says there are several factors which precipitate decreased paternal involvement after a child’s parents break-up.  The main ones are the establishment of new relationships- when either the father or the mother begins a new family with a new partner.  Surprisingly,  she finds this effect is stronger when mothers start new relationships than when fathers start new relationships.  She writes, “This gendered pattern suggests a willingness on the part of the father to remain involved regardless of his other familial commitments, but less willingness on the part of the mother to facilitate that involvement once she establishes a new family.”

One of the readers who responded to my original post took particular issue with this  argument.  She felt that the ethnographic portrait which I shared essentially suggested that the mother (Gloria) was the reason that the father (Apple) ended up abandoning his kids.

It’s important to note, though, that Edin’s framework of analysis eschews this kind of finger pointing.  She would argue that it makes sense for women like Gloria to push men like Apple out of the picture once they find new partners.  In most cases their new partners are more stable than their old partners, and having the old partners around (even if it’s just to see their kids) threatens to destabilize these new relationships through the creation of jealousy, etc.  In her view, all the actors are trying to make rational choices (good choices) within a context that both limits their range of choices and forces them to make those choices in response to suboptimal incentives (as in, women have an incentive to keep their kids’ fathers away in order to preserve their new relationships).

The second thought I snuck out of naptime with has to do with the relationship between understanding behavior and holding people accountable for their actions.  To talk in overly general terms, conservatives tend to have no patience for work like Edin’s that “contextualizes” behavior.  They see contextualization as just the first step towards excuse-making.  In their view, the only way to get good outcomes is to have high standards and to hold people accountable for their own bad choices.  Liberals, on the other hand, think that context matters and that even good people make bad choices when the wrong supports/incentives/social forces are in place.

And in this, I think both sides have a claim.  I agree with the conservatives that you can’t get anywhere without accountability.  On an individual level you have to assume that people are capable of making good choices and you have to hold them accountable when they don’t.

But at the same time, if you want to fix something you need to know why it’s broken.  The point of my original post was that when it comes to the breakdown of low-income families, simplistic explanations like “the men don’t care about their kids” fly in the face of both intuition (as I said initially, it’s a good bet to assume that all parents love their kids) and the evidence once you actually start talking to parents as Edin has done.

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Reasons to pause when judging other parents

Reasons to pause when judging other parents

A few months ago my sister came to visit with her then 8-month-old son Peter.  It was our first time spending an extended amount of time together as parents and over the course of the weekend it became clear that we approach the job differently.

Most of the differences were trivial.  The first night at dinner she fed Peter pureed vegetables and a spread of those specially formulated air-puffed snacks that Gerber sells just for babies.  I’d always thought those snacks were a little fussy—just one more way that marketers have wedged themselves into our lives—and I was surprised that my sister, who I consider to have good judgment and values broadly in-line with my own, had fallen for them.

Overall my sister is more active and deliberate as a parent while I am more inclined to let things play out as they will, and we both probably think the other goes too far in the wrong direction.  She gives Peter a bath every night.  We give Jay and Wally baths, well…less often than that.  She (like Caroline) was a little shocked that I let Jay wander so far out into the driveway without keeping a closer eye on him.  I was annoyed when, after one of Wally’s exploding poops dirtied the bouncy seat, she wouldn’t let Peter sit in that seat again until I put its cover in the wash.

So, little things like that, which in the context of a close sibling relationship can seem bigger than they are.

It’s no secret, of course, that parenting inspires all sorts of heated arguments and it makes sense that it should, given how high the stakes are for each of us individually and for society as a whole.

Still, it never feels good to sit in judgment of another person (or at least it doesn’t feel good for long).  So, when I find myself persistently judging someone else’s parenting I try to remind myself of the one thing I am more sure of than any other conclusions I might draw about why other people do what they do: just about all parents love their kids more than they love anything else in the world.  This reminder doesn’t obviate the need to have serious discussions about how best to raise kids—but it does soften the tone in which those discussions take place.

Which brings to me to one of the most routinely criticized groups of parents out there: Fathers who aren’t very involved in their kids’ lives.

They’ve been in the news a lot recently, thanks to the release of data showing that more than half of all babies born to women under-30 are born out of wedlock, and to the storm generated by Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart, which details the widening cultural gap between upper- and lower-class white Americans.

They’ve also been a preferred punching bag of the Republican Party for decades.  Typical of the anger they inspire is this excerpt from The Broken Hearth, written by the prominent moralist William Bennett: “It is unmarried fathers who are missing in record numbers, who impregnate women and selfishly flee…Abandoning alike those who they have taken as sexual partners, and whose lives they have created, they…traduce generations yet to come, and disgrace their very manhood.”

There are a lot of assumptions operating in Bennett’s full-throated denunciation.  The first one I noticed is that he doesn’t seem to agree with what I said above, that all parents love their children.  He replaces that assumption with the specter of the hit-and-run man who loses interest in his partner and in the downstream consequences of his actions as soon as he rolls over in bed.  This is certainly a frightening idea but it doesn’t square with experience: How many men have you ever met who can muster complete disregard for their own children?  I personally have never met any and that, combined with the fact that I don’t know any of the men that Bennett purports to judge (just as I imagine he doesn’t personally know any of them, either) makes me hesitate to think that I understand their situations completely.

The second assumption in Bennett’s denunciation is the idea that unmarried fathers “flee.”  I’m currently working on a story about Harvard sociologist Kathryn Edin who studies family formation patterns in low-income communities.  Her current work focuses on children born to unmarried couples.  She finds that fathers in these situations are much more involved than stereotype would have it.

Consider, for example, that the vast majority (83%) of out of wedlock pregnancies occur to couples who are in a relationship at the time of conception, and that half of those couples are living together at the time the child is born.  This certainly belies the notion that all or even most out-of-wedlock births are the product of callous sexuality.

Furthermore, 80% of low-income mothers who have nonmarital births report that their child’s father was supportive throughout their pregnancies and 60% of the relationships that produce a nonmarital birth are still intact by the time of the child’s first birthday.  Again, this runs counter to the stereotype that unmarried low-income men “flee” their families the first chance they get.

But it is true that over time fathers in these circumstances do become less involved with their kids.  Edin finds that 60% of the relationships that produced the nonmarital birth have ended by the child’s 5th birthday—and that only a quarter of those fathers still continue to see their children “several times a week” once they no longer live with their kids at home.

There is no doubt that the current state of marriage and childbearing among low-income Americans is not good.  It’s not good for us as a country and it’s not what low-income Americans, who overwhelmingly report that they aspire to get married and to build nuclear families, want for themselves.

So what do we do about this?  I don’t know.  But I do know that the conversation goes very differently depending on the assumptions you make at the outset.  On the one hand, if you assume that the men involved have no interest in actually being fathers there’s not much you can do besides scream at them (or ignore them).  On the other hand, if you assume that their basics aspirations and values are not categorically different than your own- that they love their children just like I love mine and you love yours- then that at least gives you a place to start.

And with that, I want to share a powerful story from one of Edin’s research projects.  It’s a portrait of a poor, African-American man who had children outside of marriage.  It upended the simple narratives I tell myself about why people in his position do what they do.

Apple’s Story, from Claiming Fatherhood by Kathryn Edin, et al.

Apple, a twenty-six-year-old African American father, was proud that he was “in love and everything” with Gloria, the mother of his three children (ages eleven, nine, and five), during the eight and a half years the two were together.  At first, they saw each other only casually, but within eight months she was pregnant with his daughter Vanessa. Apple, who had to repeat both seventh and eighth grade, had dropped out of school by this point and worked full-time as a drug dealer, but stopped two months shy of Vanessa’s birth. His determination to “go straight” was solidified when the baby was born, and as there was an out- standing warrant for his arrest, he decided that the right thing to do was to turn himself in. He and Gloria fought violently over this decision, which she saw as a desertion, and the altercation landed him in the emergency room from a knife wound in the cheek.

When Apple returned home after serving his sentence in a juvenile facility, he moved with Gloria and Vanessa, now nine months old, into a North Philadelphia row house that Gloria inherited from her grandmother. Everything was “lovey dovey” for a brief period of time—long enough for the conception and birth of a second child. During this time Apple worked twelve-hour days as a sandwich maker at a convenience store. During a store robbery he was injured with a gun- shot wound and, because he had no insurance, was left with a large debt to the hospital. There was also some trouble in the relationship—Gloria admitted that she had been seeing another man and was pregnant by him, though she termi- nated the pregnancy—but she also soon conceived a third child by Apple.

Around the time this third child was born, Gloria became a Muslim and prohibited any drinking in the couple’s home. Things went well for a while, but a fourth child was then born that looked nothing like Apple. For a while, Apple convinced himself that he was the child’s father, but then Apple was caught failing to comply with the drinking prohibition. Another violent fight ensued and Gloria revealed the truth: Apple was not the fourth baby’s father. During this fight, a broken bottle used as a weapon caused serious wounds to his hands and arms that landed him in the emergency room again. Several weeks later, the two had yet another altercation on a trip to the Jersey shore with the kids in Gloria’s car. This time, Gloria called the police and accused Apple of carjacking. Apple’s bail was set at $35,000, and since he did not know anyone with enough money to pay a bail bondsman, he spent two weeks in jail before the charges were dropped.

Because of these two weeks in jail, Apple lost both jobs. Desperate for money, he decided to sell marijuana and was caught and incarcerated briefly, as this was his first adult conviction. Meanwhile, Gloria abruptly married a fellow Muslim, which devastated Apple, who still insists that Gloria was his “first love.” Upon his release, Apple moved in with his mother and began searching for work, finally securing a full-time job making sandwiches at a hoagie shop. He also found a new girlfriend, Jennifer, who had a job and her own apartment nearby. Apple moved in with Jennifer, and fourteen months later they conceived a child, who was born with a heart condition that qualified her for a disability payment of just over $1,000 a month. Jennifer quit her job to take care of the child full-time. With the $200 or more Apple cleared each week from the job plus the disability benefits, the two could cover their living expenses.

Meanwhile, Gloria, who left her husband and began to collect welfare, named Apple as the father of the oldest three children. Given Gloria’s history, his family suggested that he demand a blood test, but Apple decided against it. “I just never wanted to get the blood work just in case one of the [children wasn’t mine]. I would not have felt good about that. Then depression would have set in. So I guess I waived my rights.” Meanwhile, once Apple became involved with Jennifer, any direct contact between Gloria and Apple seemed to result in violent fighting. “I wish I could see all four, you know. I pray . . . we can work it out.  But [Gloria], she just talk vicious to me like, threatens me.” Thus, he visits his children only rarely, though his daughter, the oldest, calls him daily. In fact, the last time he saw them was at a Father’s Day barbecue Gloria threw three months prior, a party to which Jennifer and the baby, Jade, were not invited.

Apple could barely contain his joy over life with his baby daughter. He felt his relationship with Jennifer, who was staying home full time with the baby, was “airtight,” and he gloried in his relationship with Jade, the eight-month-old.  Despite his troubles with Gloria, Apple said, “I am glad I had four children, regardless [of whether] I’m with their mother or whatever. I’m not a rich daddy or the best daddy, but I’m still entitled, still have four children.”

Related content from Growing Sideways

More on why low-income fathers leave but don’t flee

Priming effects

Yesterday afternoon we met Caroline at the curb outside her office, same as always.  I got out to run and she took over the driver’s seat.  Before we parted ways we had our standard debrief: I told her which of the boys had napped (both of them); I updated her on dinner (the sauce was on the stove, she just needed to add the shrimp); and I gave her quick summaries of the boys’ moods—Wally was more fragile than usual and Jay had been a trial since waking up from his nap.

After they’d driven off I started to doubt whether I should have included that last line, about Jay being a trial.  It occurred to me that by telling Caroline that Jay had been difficult with me, maybe I’d increased the odds that he was going to be difficult with her.

I imagined a scenario.  Caroline, Jay and Wally arrive home. Caroline tells Jay he needs to wash his hands and Jay runs away.  If Caroline knew nothing about Jay’s behavior earlier in the day, maybe she’d treat his running away as a trifling incident and exercise forbearance.  But instead, since I’d told her that he’d been a pill all afternoon, maybe she’d see his running away as a serial transgression and come down on him harder, reigniting a vicious cycle that would define the entire time they had together.

One of the first rules of parenting with a partner is transparency: Caroline and I share information about the boys because we trust each other to make judicious use of it and we know it’s important that we work as a team.  So, transparency is king.

That said, Caroline and I have talked about the ways in which we influence each other’s attitudes towards the boys.  At the most general level, we have our narratives about who the boys are—Jay is spirited and willful; Wally is happy and content—and we reinforce those narratives to each other.  While there is truth to those narratives, there’s also a degree to which they become self-fulfilling: Having latched onto the idea that Jay is spirited, we’re more likely to notice (and to share with each other) instances of behavior that confirm our narrative about Jay than instances of behavior that disprove it (an example of what psychologists call “confirmation bias”).

There’s no doubt that Caroline and I each influence how the other interacts with the boys.  On Saturday morning Caroline got up early with Jay and Wally.  A couple hours later I emerged from the sleep cave.  Caroline told me that the morning had been fine, but that she was a little frustrated with Jay.  I’m pretty sure that her admission of frustration primed me to get frustrated ten minutes later when Jay dawdled on the way up to his room to get dressed (which would be consistent with research into priming effects, which has shown, among other things, that when you expose people to rude words prior to an interview you increase the likelihood that they’ll behave rudely in that interview).

Like I said, I don’t think Caroline and I should edit how we talk with each other about the boys.  But it does seem important that we pay attention to how we shape each other’s attitudes towards Jay and Wally, and how those attitudes feedback into Jay and Wally’s behavior.