Visiting Scholars, 1999–2000

Reports on Current Research

Richard Brooks, Mary Pattillo-McCoy, Mignon R. Moore, and Sonia Pérez are the visiting scholars invited to IRP during the 1999-2000 academic year. Below are brief reports on research projects current at the time of their visit.

Mary Pattillo-McCoy

Assistant Professor of Sociology and African American Studies and Faculty Fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. (March 2000)

Poverty in the Family: Siblings of the Black and White Middle Classes

Middle-class blacks lag behind their white counterparts in numerous domains. Middle-class African Americans are more likely to be lower middle class in both occupational status and income. Middle-class blacks and whites reside in unequal neighborhood environments; the former live with higher poverty rates, higher unemployment, more people on welfare, more high school dropouts, and more crime. Finally, the black middle class is at an extreme wealth disadvantage when compared to whites. The theme in these findings is that middle-class blacks remain ideologically, economically, and socially tied to the black poor. One area that has received little attention is the family of these groups. My research (with Colleen M. Heflin, University of Michigan) investigates "poverty in the family" of middle-class blacks and whites.

Much of the urban poverty literature emphasizes social isolation of poor African Americans due, in part, to the outmigration of the black middle class. The literature stresses geographic outmigration, but suggests social distance between poor and nonpoor African Americans as well. However, my ethnographic research in Groveland, a black middle-class neighborhood in Chicago, documents cross-class connections in black neighborhoods and within black families (published in Black Picket Fences, University of Chicago, 1999). Consider the words of one neighborhood resident:

Just think about the welfare reform. Just think about your family. Those people that are gonna be hurt by it, they're gonna come to their family first for support. And how much support can you give? So I think that people're gonna have to wake up to that. Black people especially.

In her final words, this resident makes a basic assumption that the family members of middle-class African Americans like herself are more likely to be economically needy than the family members of middle-class whites. To test this hypothesis, we use sibling data from the 1994 wave of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. We characterize the siblings of middle-class blacks and whites and test for racial differences in the probability of having a poor sibling.

Bivariate analyses of three middle-class samples (middle-income, white-collar, and college-educated) show that middle-class blacks are more than three times as likely as middle-class whites to have a poor sibling. Also, blacks' siblings fare significantly worse than whites' siblings in income, educational attainment, public assistance receipt, employment, occupational status, and family composition. One in four middle-class blacks has a poor sibling compared to approximately one in twelve middle-class whites. College-educated blacks and whites are overall less likely to have poor siblings, but the racial disparity persists.

In the multivariate analyses, we find that having been poor as an adolescent doubles the probability of having a poor sibling, regardless of race. Since middle-class blacks were four times as likely as whites to have been poor, we conclude that the recency of the black middle class strongly contributes to the higher likelihood of having a poor sibling. However, with various individual and family-background controls, middle-class blacks are still twice as likely to have a poor sibling as middle-class whites.

Why does sibling poverty matter? The well-being of extended kin (in our study, siblings) is important because of the material and psychological strain that needy family members can pose, as well as the presence or absence of certain forms of capital. Not only can a poor sibling translate into particular demands on the resources of middle-class blacks and whites (as argued by the Groveland resident quoted above), there is also the simple exposure to the stresses of living in poverty for middle-class adults and their children. Also, a poor sibling is much less likely to be able to provide support for a middle-class sibling who is undergoing his/her own period of economic stress. For example, a poor sibling is unlikely to be able to provide job or educational contacts for sisters and brothers or nieces and nephews. Thus, racial differences in family contexts signal possible differences in pressures to support economically marginal kin, in the presence or absence of positive and negative influences on middle-class youth, and in the larger pool of financial, cultural, or social resources available to black and white middle-class families.

In future research, we intend to explore how different family contexts might affect outcomes such as wealth accumulation and children's educational development. We are also exploring other data sets, including the National Survey of Family and Households (NSFH), housed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Although the NSFH does not query siblings, it does have valuable information provided by parents on various outcomes for all of their children. One variable of particular interest is children's involvement in the criminal justice system. The very high and growing incarceration rates of African Americans suggest that middle-class blacks are more likely than whites to have a family member in jail, which again may affect their own socioemotional well-being or that of their children. Overall, this research agenda extends the literature on racial disparities among the middle class in neighborhoods, occupations, and wealth to illustrate a similar fragility of the black middle class within families.

Mignon R. Moore

Assistant Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies, Columbia University  (March 2000)

Family Environment and Adolescent Sexual Debut in Alternative Household Structures

This study is part of a larger research agenda designed to increase our understanding of the interactions between family and community environment as they relate to problem behavior for adolescents living outside of two-biological-parent families. The study examines the relationship between family structure, parenting behaviors, and sexual onset for black and white youth in alternative two-parent and single-parent households. Early sexual debut, meaning first intercourse at or before age 16, is considered a problem behavior because younger adolescents are less likely to use condoms or other contraceptives and because longer durations of sexual activity increase the likelihood of sexual disease transmission, adolescent pregnancy, and parenthood. Although the risk of early intercourse is lowest for teens living with two married, biological parents, we know less about the relationship between family structure and sexual debut for adolescents in other two-parent households. Moreover, high levels of parental social support and discipline may also influence the decision to initiate sex, but not much is known about their relationship to sexual debut, nor how parenting from father-figures interacts with family structure to affect the behavior of young people. Finally, there has been little comparative work examining the extent to which family structure and process differentially affect the sexual activity of black and white youth.

The study uses data from the first wave of the National Longitudinal Study of Youth 1997 (NLSY97) to advance the literature in three ways. First, the NLSY97 allows us to examine a more complete representation of families, including divorced and remarried households--family types most often used in research--as well as household structures that have become more common in society, such as cohabiting families, first-marriage stepfamilies,(1) and never married, single-mother households. Second, this research tests the importance of mothers' and fathers' social support and discipline as mediators of family structure, understanding that the effects of fathers' parenting on sexual debut are likely to vary by the way in which a parent enters the family (i.e., as a stepfather or as a mother's cohabiting partner). Third, the study provides pooled and separate estimates by race to examine whether family structures operate in different ways for black and white youth.

In multivariate analyses the logistic regressions for whites show that, compared to living with two biological parents, the risk of early sexual debut is significantly greater for youth in every alternative family structure except the first-marriage stepfamily. The risk of early sexual onset is significantly lower in first-marriage stepfamilies when compared to the risk in remarried and cohabiting households. Interactions with fathers' support and discipline show that, among white families, firm and supportive parenting increases the odds of early debut when received from a male cohabitor or stepfather in a remarried household, and decreases those odds when received from a biological father or a father in a first-marriage stepfamily. This suggests that firm and supportive parenting in first-marriage stepfamilies may operate in a protective way, similar to parenting received from biological fathers in traditional two-parent households, and different from parenting received from stepfathers in remarried families.

Analyses for blacks reveal a different relationship between family structure and adolescent sexual onset. Compared to those in households with two biological parents, youth who live in never-married or maritally disrupted single-mother households have a significantly higher odds of sexual debut. However, none of the alternative two-parent families predicts a risk of sexual onset that is significantly different from that in two-biological-parent families. In addition, the findings suggest that high levels of support from fathers in two-parent households may be protective, regardless of family type.

We know that early sexual onset places youth at risk for a variety of unhealthy outcomes during adolescence and adulthood. Families have the potential to act in a protective way, but the process by which parental behaviors relate to teenage sexual activity has not been well studied, particularly with respect to African-American families and nontraditional, two-parent households. In the present study, the results support existing family structure and parenting theories for white families, but suggest a need to reconceptualize these theories for African-Americans. My future work in this area will address these issues further using other datasets. I will also combine survey research with qualitative, ethnographic methods to examine racial and ethnic differences in the meaning and nature of social interaction in alternative two-parent households, as well as their influence on adolescent behavior.

1. First-marriage stepfamilies are formed as a result of a marriage by a biological parent to a nonbiological parent subsequent to a nonmarital birth.

Sonia M. Pérez

Deputy Vice President for Research at the National Council of La Raza in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Visiting Minority Scholar at IRP in April 2000.

Hispanic Workers: Determining the Nation's Future Prosperity

As the proportion of the U.S. workforce that is Hispanic has increased, the economic status of Latino workers has begun to receive greater attention. Hispanics currently represent one in nine Americans. Owing to both high fertility and immigration, by 2030 one in four Americans will be of Hispanic origin.

The effects of these demographic changes, coupled with the Hispanic population's youthfulness (more than one-third are under 18 years old and almost half are under 25), are already being felt in the U.S. labor market and overall economy. Latino men have consistently had the highest labor force participation rate of any group of male workers. Whereas Hispanic women have typically been less likely than their African-American and white counterparts to work, their labor force participation rates have steadily increased in the past decade, so that they are now close to parity with other American women workers. In 1996, two out of every five workers hired for new jobs were Latino. Moreover, recent research measured the buying power of Hispanics at more than $380 billion in the late 1990s.

These and other signs, like the growth in small businesses and the tendency of Hispanics to form two-parent working families, underscore the economic strength and influence of Hispanic workers--and their potential impact on the cities and states in which they live, as well as on the nation as a whole. Despite these impressive indicators, however, several other areas raise concerns.

Latino families continue to be three times likelier than whites to be poor. It is especially troubling that Hispanic families with full-time, year-round workers are more likely than others to be among the working poor. Further, although the poverty rate of Hispanic families with children dropped from 30.4 percent in 1997 to 28.6 percent in 1998--its lowest rate since 1991--poverty for these families remains more than double the rate of similar white families. Overall, one-third of Latino children are poor.

What explains the mixed economic picture of Latino workers and families? How do Latinos compare to other Americans in terms of economic mobility? How do these comparisons look within and across the diverse U.S. Latino population? And to what degree do factors like immigrant status and discrimination affect Latino economic progress?

Upcoming National Council of La Raza research shows that low education levels and, in some cases, limited English proficiency influence Latino worker status. Compared to other students, Hispanics enter school later, leave school earlier, and have the lowest high school and college completion levels. Such factors are associated with an occupational distribution that is heavily skewed toward low-wage jobs, poor mobility, and earnings that often do not reach the poverty line, even when workers are employed full time and year round.

Deindustrialization and the increase in low-paying service jobs have also hurt Latino workers. Similarly, changes in the requirements of the workforce, including higher education and skill levels, have resulted in a skills mismatch for Latino workers. Other workplace issues that affect Latino economic status include low rates of health insurance and pension coverage. Labor market discrimination has also been shown to limit job opportunities for Hispanic workers, and more research is needed to update previous studies and further document and address these practices.

Finally, the "immigrant" factor has often been cited as contributing to a depressed overall economic profile of U.S. Hispanics. Data show that 70 percent of Hispanics are citizens (63 percent are native born and 7 percent are naturalized). Of those under 18, 85 percent were born in the United States. Given that Hispanic immigrants are especially likely to have low human capital, some argue that their outcomes adversely mask the progress of native-born Latinos. Our research shows that although Latino immigrants do tend to be poorer than Latinos born in the United States, native-born status alone is not enough to ensure economic stability or mobility. For instance, the poverty rate of U.S.-born Mexican Americans is still three times higher than that of whites. And Puerto Ricans, U.S. citizens by birth, have consistently had the highest poverty rate of all Latino subgroups. Moreover, immigrants have other positive characteristics that arguably strengthen the Latino community and the nation, including a strong work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit, and high home ownership rates.

Why does this matter and what are the implications for the nation? Changes in the composition of the U.S. population mean that Latinos represent an increasing share of students, workers, and taxpayers. This suggests that the sustainability of the nation's economy will depend on the labor force participation and productivity levels of the significant proportion of Latinos who are entering their prime working years. To ensure that Latino workers are adequately prepared to compete and excel in the workforce, increasing Latino educational attainment stands out as the most important and pressing policy priority. While we pay attention to lowering the Hispanic dropout rate, we need to go beyond that and look at preprimary education and the college completion rate, given the demands of the current economy. Additionally, the Earned Income Credit is arguably the most effective antipoverty policy for Latino workers, and policy makers should heed the calls for expanding and deepening the credit.

Many of the challenges facing Latino workers are not intractable. High levels of economic and social "return" are achievable if the nation makes critical education and workplace investments in low-wage workers. In light of the growing awareness of the importance of Latino workers to the economy, such investments are well within the nation's capacity and interest.

Note: This summary is based on research presented in Sonia M. Pérez, editor, Moving Up the Economic Ladder: Latino Workers and the Nation's Future Economic Prosperity, National Council of La Raza, Washington, DC (forthcoming July 2000).