Hopkins researchers shatter long-held beliefs about families in America.
By Rachel Wallach
Illustrations by Polly Becker
You’ve heard them before—those broad-brush statements people use to try to tie up complex social issues in a neat package. “People in America just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” Or, “Welfare helps the poorest people in our country.” Johns Hopkins sociologists and economists are using hard data to explore and sometimes shatter such widely held beliefs—about mothering, fathering, moving up, moving out, and other important aspects of family life in America. Recently, some of their research (and its implications) has been receiving wide recognition in the media as well as from their colleagues. Here, we learn more about their work and what it reveals about the sometimes hidden realities among us.
When it comes to low-income unmarried fathers, an attitude adjustment is in order. But it’s not the dads’ attitudes that need changing—it is American society’s attitude toward the dads, say Johns Hopkins sociologists Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson.
Through years of in-depth interviews with more than 100 fathers in Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey, the husband and wife team of Nelson and Edin came to a realization: Most inner-city dads, instead of fleeing physically or emotionally at the news of their fatherhood, leap at the chance to embrace such a positive role and view the event as a turning point for themselves, even redemption. Instead of slinking out of their children’s lives, they do everything in their power to develop and nourish the bond. The problem is that “everything” is seldom anywhere close to enough.
“These fathers get written off by so many people,” says Nelson, senior lecturer in the Krieger School’s Department of Sociology. “The thing that comes through for me is these guys have value. They have value for their children, they have potential value for society, but nobody—including their children’s moms—looks at them this way.”
In their book Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City, released earlier this year, Edin and Nelson describe the backdrop of their subjects’ zest for fatherhood and of the eventual failure of so many to realize their good intentions. Raising their own family in economically depressed Camden alongside the men in their book, the couple says they “heard the same sirens, the same gunshots,” and experienced firsthand a version of the intense trauma and depression that the men have known all their lives. It is this context, they say, that allows men to view a baby as new and pure and full of nothing but promise, offering them the rare and welcome chance to contribute something positive to the world.
“Here’s a person who’s been so damaged by poverty and his environment taking a step out to contribute to society,” says Edin, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Sociology.
To embrace their new role, many dads try to straighten out their employment situations and attempt to settle down with their child’s mother. But the baby’s parents often haven’t been together long and don’t really know each other very well. The dads’ real commitment is to the child, and they often struggle to be a good partner. As disillusion sets in, the mother may fail to do all she can to keep the dad involved, or may even cut him off and move on. Children experience upheaval: the bond with their dad is weakened and they may acquire a new father figure in their mom’s next partner, and dads may restart the cycle with a new relationship.
Edin and Nelson say American society has been treating noncustodial dads as pariahs for a long time with poor results, so it’s time for a change. Instead of assuming dads can’t or won’t play a positive role in their children’s lives, we should find ways to support them in creating the kind of life with their children they say they want. Prenatal clinics should expect dads at every visit, the researchers say. Social workers should encourage families to stay intact instead of nudging moms to break things off. Schools should expect dads at events, and states should adjudicate custody and visitation along with child support.
“What men say is that children give them a reason to straighten up. We need men to straighten up, so let’s capitalize on their desire to do good,” Edin says.
When low-income families use housing vouchers to leave one high-poverty neighborhood only to end up in another high-poverty neighborhood, it’s often assumed that the voucher program “doesn’t work” because families will just end up choosing poor neighborhoods.
“Inherent in our thinking and our policy is that we can’t help people because they keep making bad choices. But think about sushi or any other food on a menu: I can’t tell you if I like it if I haven’t tried it yet,” says Stefanie Deluca, an associate professor of sociology.
But when the right supports are in place, families can change the way they think about housing decisions, with striking results for child and family well-being. Families that experience neighborhoods with less poverty—and the schools, safety, and peace of mind that go with them—soon adjust their preferences and the ways they make decisions in order to hold onto those newfound amenities, Deluca says.
“What people want can change on the basis of experience,” she says.
In a paper published in the March 2014 Journal of Public Policy Analysis and Management with postdoctoral student Jennifer Darragh, Deluca shares findings from interviews with 110 participants in the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program (BHMP), which, since 2003, has used vouchers to help more than 2,000 low-income African-American families move from high-poverty, segregated Baltimore City neighborhoods to low-poverty, racially mixed areas in the surrounding suburbs.
BHMP, unlike typical housing voucher programs, specifically helps families move to middle-class neighborhoods. It also offers extensive support beyond the financial, including counseling about what it’s like to live in the suburbs, lists of approved rentals, post-move visits to ensure a smooth transition, and landlord recruitment, which involves explaining to property owners the advantages of leasing to the more-prepared BHMP families over others.
With this foundation, families were more likely to move to high-opportunity areas and remain in their new homes than families using conventional housing vouchers. They enjoyed spacious backyards and the absence of police tape and gunfire. Some described seeing their children as “smart” for the first time through the eyes of teachers who had time to notice it. They came to “shift their residential choice frameworks,” Deluca writes, raising their expectations for what neighborhoods, homes, and schools can provide. When many low-income families need to move, they land wherever fate puts them, scrambling to get a roof over their children’s heads. When BHMP families needed to move again, they considered the availability of good schools and safe communities. “It changes the next decision,” Deluca says. “A parent considers, If I have to move again or change jobs, how do I keep these things that are good for my kids? These effects on subsequent decision making mean the policy has the potential to provide longer-lasting benefits.”
Urban poverty and its effects are often measured by school quality, test scores, crime, household income, and health metrics—housing itself tends to miss the radar. But housing affects all those areas, Deluca says; the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development considers it a “platform for family and child well-being.” So housing policy is crucial in addressing issues of social inequality, and holds the potential to make a real impact in many domains, she says.
Most families that use housing voucher programs move to poor neighborhoods, but if policies took into account how families actually make housing decisions, as described in Deluca’s paper, programs could leverage the money to help more families access lower-poverty neighborhoods and stay there. For example, she says, programs could require a certain percentage of vouchers to be used in areas with less than 40 percent poverty. More programs could invest in the kind of counseling the BHMP used.
“We know we can do a better job, and use vouchers as a tool to get kids better schools and safer neighborhoods,” Deluca says. “Vouchers don’t just house families, they also provide access to resources that can improve educational outcomes and health for children and parents.”
While this traditional path is still largely followed among the college-educated middle class, it’s no longer the trajectory for the high school-educated lower and working classes, notes Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin. He described this “marriage gap,” and what it means for U.S. society, in a paper recently presented to the Population Association of America.
The majority of kids are now born outside of marriage for everyone except college graduates, says Cherlin, the Benjamin H. Griswold III Professor of Public Policy. “Americans without college degrees are almost abandoning marriage. They don’t see the possibility of a good marriage, and [so they] turn to other paths to form their families,” he says.
The last time we had a marriage gap was in the late 1800s, the so-called Gilded Age. Like now, that was a time of great economic inequality, Cherlin says, but with one important difference: though young adults were putting off marriage, they weren’t having kids because it wasn’t socially acceptable. Never before, he says, have we experienced severe economic inequality and cultural norms accepting birth outside marriage at the same time.
“American society is moving toward two different patterns of family formation and two diverging destinies for children,” write Cherlin and his co-authors, sociology doctoral student Elizabeth Talbert and research data analyst Suzumi Yasutake. As young adults increasingly follow very different routes into family life based on their educational background and social class, having a child, rather than getting married, seems to define adulthood for many young Americans. “What’s replaced marriage among less-educated Americans is unstable, complex family lives that often don’t provide a firm foundation for raising children,” Cherlin says.
Cherlin worries about this trend for several reasons. One is that children in unstable households do worse in school—and American children today have lots of instability, with more parents, partners, and stepparents moving into and out of their homes than in any other advanced country, he says. Another is that the trend is chipping away at the cohesiveness of our society.
“We’re raising a generation of young adults who are loosely anchored into society,” Cherlin says. “They’re becoming disconnected from the civic culture of our country. Not everyone must lead a traditional life, but we want a connected civic culture—people who are interacting with others, participating in our democracy, and have a stake in our economy.”
To reverse the trend, policymakers need to understand both its economic and cultural underpinnings, says Cherlin, who sees grounds for hope in reform conservatives who believe the GOP must reconnect with working class voters. Policies regarding the minimum wage, unions, and tax structures could all be used to support lower-income and working-class Americans, he says, a change that would lead to more economic stability and make marriage a more realistic pathway.
High school–educated adults need to be reintegrated into the labor force, giving them a realistic path toward work, a stable relationship, and kids, in that order, says Cherlin, who also believes more resources should be invested in community colleges and apprenticeships.
It’s a nearly universal message: Do well in school, and you’ll do well in life. And for many individuals, it’s true. But not for most of the urban disadvantaged, for whom education alone is not sufficient, says Karl Alexander, John Dewey Professor of Sociology.
In the recently released The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood, Alexander and his co-authors—the late Doris Entwisle, research professor of sociology, and Linda Olson, associate research scientist with the Center for Social Organization of Schools—distill 25 years of interviews with almost 800 individuals of varying socioeconomic backgrounds who entered first grade in one of 20 Baltimore public schools in 1982.
The purpose, Alexander says, was to understand how participants’ early experiences influenced their school performance and the unfolding of their adult years. For example, data from the final set of interviews—when participants were 28—show that just 4 percent of those from disadvantaged backgrounds (low-income families, parents with little education, and poor neighborhoods) had earned a college degree, compared with 45 percent of their more advantaged peers. The tenfold difference was “shocking,” says Alexander, who retired this year after 42 years at Johns Hopkins.
“Conditions early in life cast a long shadow in that they potentially follow children all along the way into adulthood, with implications that are long-lasting and profoundly important,” Alexander says. “Not many are achieving upward mobility using the means we encourage of them.”
But along the way, the researchers discovered even more surprises. Their methodology gave them an unusual window—because they drew participants from schools instead of neighborhoods, they were able to compare the life trajectories of African American and white individuals from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. What they found was that at age 28, 45 percent of disadvantaged white men were employed in high-skill, high-pay industrial and construction jobs. Fifteen percent of disadvantaged African American men also worked in industry and construction but earned half as much as their white peers. Same backgrounds, same school experiences—but very different adulthoods.
With 25 years of data to draw from, the researchers pieced together the factors behind their findings. While in high school, 21 percent of disadvantaged white men had worked summer construction jobs, but not a single African American man had done so, setting up a powerful contrast in both employment experience and professional networks. White men had shorter spells of unemployment and were more likely at a given moment to be working full time. When the researchers asked them at age 22 how they found jobs, white men were more likely to list family and friends, while African American men said they’d found work on their own.
“What we think we’re seeing are social network advantages that benefit whites, and African Americans don’t have access to those social ties,” Alexander says.
This was not just the long shadow of individual families, the researchers realized, but the long shadow of a culture set in motion by the participants’ grandparents’ generation—the 35,000 workers at the Bethlehem Steel mill during Baltimore’s post-war economic heyday. What had made possible those secure, high-paying jobs with good benefits and the emergence of what the sociological literature calls the “blue-collar elite”? Unions. White ones. And those connections were reinforced by the segregated churches, bars, and neighborhoods where the steelworkers spent their off-duty hours.
These institutions’ official segregation may have ended, but it echoes loudly in the data, which show that access to social networks makes all the difference. “Those formal barriers are history, but they have resonance still, because the informal practices that replaced them support the same hierarchies of advantage and disadvantage,” Alexander says.
So if education isn’t the sole pathway to social mobility, what is? You can’t legislate the sharing of social contacts, or the hiring of a neighbor’s son. But you can create more ambitious work-study and vocational-technical training programs in middle and high school, Alexander says. You can use policy to create incentives for more low-income students to enter and complete college, and to develop more rewarding careers for those who don’t finish college. And then, as divisions between social networks slowly blur, and employers gain more experience with African-American employees and begin to shed some of their preconceived notions about their work ethic, the trend may begin to turn.
“You’ve got to break through attitudes, and that’s hard to do programmatically,” Alexander says. “But attitudes do change.”
If you’re poor and receiving government benefits, you’re probably doing better than you were 30 years ago. But if you’re very poor, you’re probably doing worse.
Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Economics Robert Moffitt discovered this phenomenon while tracking the long-term growth and decline of individual programs, like food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit, and wondered how their rise and fall was affecting different groups of recipients. He was shocked at the magnitude of impact. Between 1984 and 2004, overall government benefits for disadvantaged families increased by 89 percent per capita—almost as large as the rate of growth when most of the programs were created during the Johnson administration in the 1960s. But during the 1984–2004 period, benefits decreased by 35 percent for most single-parent families living below 50 percent of the poverty line.
The trick is to look at which programs have increased spending, Moffitt explained during a May presidential address to the Population Association of America. It turns out that just three programs are responsible for most of that growth, and they’re too specific to be of much help to the majority of disadvantaged families. The Earned Income Tax Credit targets families with jobs, with the bulk going to those earning $10,000 to $20,000 per year. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) only supports families with a disabled family member. The food stamp program provides food subsidies to families of all income levels, making it the closest to a universal program, but only at the level of $5 per person per day.
Meanwhile, the more universal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (formerly Aid to Families with Dependent Children), which provides cash assistance to single mothers, shrank by about 70 percent since 1970. Manpower training programs have also steadily declined. Unemployed mothers do receive Medicaid, but families can’t survive on Medicaid and food stamps alone.
“So the programs that expanded the most are not helping the most disadvantaged families,” Moffitt says. “I think that the American public and Congress have certain ideas of who’s deserving and who’s not, which I think is not accurate.” Voters are sympathetic toward the disabled and the working poor, Moffitt says, but not toward unemployed single mothers because they assume it’s a choice based in irresponsibility. The reality, he says, is that the majority of nonworking families face severe challenges to steady work, which may include a lack of skills, high-crime neighborhoods, and health, transportation, and child care issues.
In Moffitt’s view, the solution lies in supporting those who are willing to try to improve their situations. For example, if substance use is holding someone back, benefits should be made available as long as that person enrolls in a treatment program and goes clean, he says. Transportation benefits should be used to help people apply for jobs and get to work. Support should be offered while someone is completing a high school degree or attending junior college.
We might look to other nations as examples, Moffitt adds. Many European nations consider improvement for disadvantaged families beneficial to the overall economy, helping all individuals be productive members of society and contribute to their countries’ economic strength and growth.
“Somehow that whole idea is absent here in the U.S.,” Moffitt says. “I would think the same argument would be true here, that we want all families to be engaged in productive activities and lead healthy lives. That will benefit all of us, to have a stronger economy and a healthier society, with all children having the opportunity to be the best they can be.”
Undergraduates drawn to issues like those discussed in this story, or who want to try their hand at developing policy solutions, may be interested in the Krieger School’s new social policy minor.
Officially starting this fall following a pilot last spring, the minor lends an interdisciplinary focus to the study of issues and policies spanning education, inequality, poverty, health, and crime. Offered jointly by the departments of Economics, Political Science, and Sociology, the program requires an introductory course, a social policy elective, an intensive semester combining an internship with small classes in either Baltimore or Washington, D.C., and a senior capstone course. An opportunity for undergraduates to work closely with faculty and get hands-on experience with social problems and policy solutions, the minor is designed to prepare students for careers in government, nonprofits, and the private sector.
Johns Hopkins, located in a city facing multiple social challenges and just up the road from the federal government and associated agencies and think tanks, is ideally situated to host this program, says Andrew Cherlin, who chairs the committee that oversees the minor. Whether a student interns in a neighborhood nonprofit or the halls of Congress, he or she will leave with tools that employers value: rigorous analysis of real-world problems and the ability to craft a report or memo to the head of an agency or a member of Congress that outlines an issue and what might be done about it.
Kathryn Edin, who taught in a similar program for graduate students at Harvard before she came to Johns Hopkins, says the program is the only one of its kind for undergraduates. One of its strengths, she says, is that it is discipline-based as opposed to pre-professional; students get a firm academic grounding in one of the three disciplines as well as the chance to apply their new skills.
“We have some of the smartest undergrads in the world directing their considerable energies toward some of the most morally urgent problems of the day, with a strong dose of disciplined science behind them,” she says.
Johns Hopkins is building a team of world-class public policy researchers who influence policy, and the minor is poised to bring undergraduates into that fold, says Stefanie Deluca, who will lead the Baltimore internship cohort (political science Associate Professor Steven Teles will lead their Washington counterparts). Deluca has noticed that Hopkins students are looking for both intellectual stimulation and hands-on tools—they don’t just want to know why a problem exists but what can be done about it. The minor, she says, combines the rigor one expects of Johns Hopkins with the actionable skills to allow students to be agents of change, ready to reshape social issues.
“It positions us to be the kind of place where these myths get busted every day,” Deluca says.