Monday, August 30, 2010

Reading :: America's Children

America's Children: Resources from Family, Government, and the Economy (Population of the United States in the 1980s: A Census Monograph)
By Donald J. Hernandez

I ran into a reference of this book when reading Rogoff's The Cultural Nature of Human Development, and it sounded so fascinating that I had to pick it up. And I was right: it was fascinating, and I inhaled it within a couple of hours.

Not that I read every word. This book is an analysis of US Census data and relevant data sources from the 1980 census back, focused on what these data can tell us about children: from family size to living arrangements to employment (both parents' and children's). These data are admittedly limited, but the author carefully puts them together in a way that informs us of surprising trends in children's lives. And he carefully hedges when the data are unclear or incomplete. More than that, he goes beyond facts to provide analyses. Honestly, if you simply read the conclusions for each chapter, you'll get the gist, and if you want to carefully examine the data, you can read the chapters and look up the census data.

Personally, I wanted to get the gist, so I spent most of my time with the chapter conclusions and only skimmed the chapters. My particular interest was an issue that Rogoff raised in her book: how family models related to recent economic changes. Hernandez's book discusses this issue quite well.

For instance, Hernandez points out that many factors have appeared to impact family size and fertility (i.e., the number of children a woman expects to have over her lifetime). Both numbers have plummeted over the last several decades. Hernandez points out several reasons. First, rates of childhood mortality have dropped. In 1890, 40% of black children and 20% of white children died before age 15. By 1973, those numbers had dropped to 4% and 2% respectively (p.46). Similarly, family sizes experienced a "revolutionary" drop: "the proportions [of adolescents] living in families with 5-7 and 8+ siblings plummeted from 30 and 46 percent, respectively, [for those born in 1890] to only 14 and 2 percent [for those born in 1973], while the proportions living in families with 1-2 and 3-4 siblings jumped from 7 and 16 percent, respectively, to 40 and 45 percent" (p.51). These differences mean both more and less beneficial consequences: fewer companions; more resources per child; more educational advancement; higher-status occupations (which correlate to more educational advancement) (p.55). Furthermore, Hernandez says, we were midway through this family-size revolution by the end of the Great Depression. Apparently this revolution was due to the Industrial Revolution, which increased the costs of having children while lowering the benefits (p.55). (We'll return to this theme in a moment.)

Hernandez also points out other changes in family composition. The proportion of children who were not in intact two-person families was 30-35% in 1940-1960; by 1988, the proportion was 50% (p.57). We see a rise in mother-only families (p.57). At the same time, we see a decline in the presence of grandparents (p.72). These changes are generally not positive: children in one-parent families tend to have lower incomes; lower levels of attention from parents; greater personal and parental stress; greater school-related, health, and behavioral problems; fewer total years of education; lower-status occupations in adulthood; and lower incomes in adulthood (p.93).

Families are also impacted by changes in parents' work and the family economy (Ch.4) - and this is where I was most interested. Hernandez notes two transformations in the parents' work: (1) from agricultural to industrial work, when families moved from the two-parent farm family to the father-as-breadwinner model, and (2) from the father-as-breadwinner model to dual-earner and single-parent nonfarm families (p.98). These three models have different familiar relationships; the shift in work leads to shifts in family models and roles (p.99). The heart of this chapter is a stunning graph showing the percentage of families under each model (p.103), the same graph that Rogoff reproduces. In 1790, over 70% of families were two-parent farm families, while only about 10% were dual-earner nonfarm and one-parent families; by 1980, the percentages had reversed and then some. And Hernandex emphasizes that the rapid rise of the latter category is due to the dual-earner families, not the one-parent families (p.104).

The parents' employment isn't the whole story. Adolescent work has been dramatically transformed as well. In agricultural work, work and education are merged, and even for occupations off the farm, the rule was apprenticeships. Invested adults would directly supervise adolescents. Youth labor was considered essential for the survival of the family and community (p.129). In comparison, in industrial work, a smaller number of males aged 14-19 worked when school was in session (the dip was much slighter for females the same age) (p.129). Industrial work required stronger, more experienced workers; involved trade unions; and saw the introduction of child labor and compulsory education laws (p.132). Critically, greater affluence meant that youth labor was no longer essential for survival. At the same time, the nonfarm economy required greater levels of education for workers (p.132).

So by 1940, 60% of employed 16-17 year olds worked in "old" workplace settings (farms, factories); by 1980, this number dropped to 14%, with 56% in "new" workplaces (sales, services) (p.133). In these new settings, youth workers don't require the skills needed by adult workers; adult supervisors were less invested in youths' socialization and development; and according to Hernandez, these factors promoted a peer culture that fostered delinquent behavior and cynicism about the value of productive labor. Adolescent work had moved from on-the-job training for an adult career to a relatively disconnected set of skills oriented toward personal consumption (not family support) (pp.133-134). Children enter the workforce to support their own lifestyle (p.136) and are expected to live in a household where both parents work away from home (p.136).

Related, children agees 5-17 attended school only 11% of the days of the year in 1870; by 1988, they attended 43% of days. School enrollment during the same period shot up from 50 to 98%. Days per enrolled student shot from 78 to 162 (p.146).

Break down the data by parents' educational attainment and more interesting trends show up. In the 1920s, 43.5% of children were born to fathers with less than 7 years of elementary school; 39.4% were born to mothers with this level of education. By the 1980s, 85.4% of children were born to fathers with 4+ years of high school, and 80.9% to mothers with that level of education. The percentage for parents with some years of college? 47.4% and 37.9% respectively. (p.197) Hernandez speculates that factors in that last figure include the GI Bill and the Vietnam draft (p.198). (Recall that Drucker pegs the shift to the knowledge society to the GI Bill.)

I've only scratched the surface of the insights in this book, which are considerable, and I'm still trying to absorb them as I think about the implications for how we work and how we culturally understand our work. It's fascinating. If you have any interest in this topic, I suggest checking the book out.

No comments: