The family as a source of inequality

Forthcoming research suggests that the family is a significant source of inequality:

differences between families explain only 25 percent of the nation’s income inequality; the remaining 75 percent is explained by differences between siblings. More typical of the United States than President Bush and his brother Jeb, the governor of Florida, he suggests, are the White House’s previous tenant, Bill Clinton, and his half-brother, Roger, a college dropout, onetime cocaine dealer and failed musician. Or, for that matter, Jimmy Carter and his ne’er-do-well brother, Billy (emphasis added).

So what in the family matters? It is not birth order, here the analysis become quite intricate:

…his conclusions – that everything from parental job loss or divorce to race and family size can affect siblings differently – don’t lend themselves to catchy headlines, they arguably provide a more nuanced portrait of internal family dynamics than all-purpose explanations like birth order.

Some of his more provocative findings concern middle-borns. In families with three or more children, Mr. Conley says, middle offspring are less likely to receive financial support for their education and may do less well in school than their older and younger siblings. The chances that a second child will attend private school drop by 25 percent with the birth of a third, Mr. Conley found, and the likelihood that he or she will be held back a year increased severalfold. Unlike typical first- and last-borns, he reasons, middle children never experience family life as an only child; instead, they are forced to compete with their siblings for money and attention. (In this sense, he concedes, birth order does matter: not as a psychological variable but as a constraint on family resources.)

Other findings seem to confirm common-sense intuitions. According to Mr. Conley’s analysis, for example, women are more likely to be as successful as their brothers if their mothers worked outside the home. And, like the long-suffering George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the oldest child still at home at the time of a parental death or divorce is more likely than younger siblings to endure negative socioeconomic consequences as a result. Brothers and sisters may even experience race differently, he argues, since skin color can vary considerably within the same family.

So far it seems that the work is well-received. Here is the home page of the researcher, Dalton Conley, a remarkably prolific and rigorous scholar. Here is an earlier MR post on Horatio Alger and intergenerational mobility.

The (provisional) bottom line: Unhappy with your lot in life? It’s not the capitalist system or the Bush tax cuts, blame Mom and Dad. I’ll let you know more once the book arrives and I’ve read the whole thing.


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