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March 31, 2005

Race, gender inequities aren’t the only barriers to success

“I’m sure 99 percent of parents love their children equally. But do they treat them equally? I seriously doubt it,” said a national expert on the influence of family home life on adult success. “We love our kids equally, but sometimes that love blinds us to actual inequalities within the family.”

Dalton Conley, professor of sociology at New York University and director of its Center for Advanced Social Science Research, spoke here March 21 as part of the Center for Race and Social Problems lecture series, underwritten by the law firm Reed Smith.

Conley’s talk, titled “Is the Family Home a Level Playing Field?” (his answer to which is clearly “no”), elaborated on research findings that were the source of his latest book, “The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why.”

Conley stressed that his data covered black families and white families only, relying heavily on the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a University of Michigan longitudinal study of 5,000 families begun in 1968 with bi-annual updates of information on all family members.

The main conclusion he reached from the data is that racial and gender inequities are weighted too heavily by researchers in determining adult success outcomes, while economic factors and the role of families in influencing adult success aren’t weighted enough.

Indicators of racial inequality reveal a continuing gap between whites and blacks in unemployment rates, educational achievement and level of occupation, among other inequities, Conley said. “Whites are about twice as likely to hold a professional or managerial job than African Americans, for example.”

Similarly, whites are twice as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree, although that gap is narrowing, and about half as likely to be unemployed as African Americans.

“But all those numbers are dwarfed by the average net worth for whites over blacks, which is from 10 to 12 times higher for median whites over median blacks,” Conley said. Moreover, comparing African-American and white families with the same wealth level narrows or eliminates those gaps. “So, when we talk about race differences in education, for example, we’re really talking about economic class differences, economic resources differences,” he said.

“In this room,” he told the Kurtzman Room audience, “we have a disproportionate number of people with a four-year degree, but among those of you who do hold such a degree, there’s a 50 percent chance that one of your siblings will not have one. Even that bedrock of middle class values — to get an education — is very often unequal in families.”

Examining a family’s circumstances — economic resources, number of children, parents’ education level and type of employment — does not represent even a majority of the factors that go into life success, Conley acknowledged. “But it is useful, even though the family situation is never a cookie-cutter; it’s more like a spinning wheel. My $64,000 question is: What factors are the most influential within a family? The favorite two answers to this are birth order and genetics,” Conley said. “I will not deny that they matter, but I will say they matter differently than you think.”

Birth order matters, but needs to be viewed in a matrix of economic resources, family size and family structure stability, he said. “Parents can love kids from bigger families equally, but everything else they have to offer is a fixed pie. The more children, the less direct monetary support for, say, tuition; the less ‘special time’ for kids with parents, for example, checking homework. Each additional kid affects the others.” And more children likely means parents work longer hours.

While there is no appreciable statistical difference between the first born of two and the first born of more than two for the chance to go to a private school, there are significant differences between the second born of two and the second born of three or more for his or her chances of attending private school, as the economic pie gets sliced further.

“Jan Brady was right: Birth order crunches the middle child as the family grows,” Conley said.

The circumstance, quite common in this country, of a parent’s death or desertion or the parents’ divorce, however, often forces the first born who is still at home to take over many responsibilities of a missing parent, especially if the oldest child is a girl, Conley said. “I call this the ‘Cinderella effect.’ Here it is a disadvantage for the first born.”

Other inequities within families include discrimination based on sexual orientation and physical appearance.

For African Americans in the general society, a lighter skin tone is a predictor of economic success, Conley said. “Even within African-Americans families, there is a ‘pigmentocracy.’”

In white families, girls are penalized for a high body mass index, while for white boys, appearance is not a discriminating factor, except that taller means more favored in childhood, because it boosts confidence among peers. However, height largely disappears as a factor in adulthood success for males, he added.

“Sexual orientation and [different] religious beliefs work very much in the same way in families,” Conley said. “If you are gay or bisexual, you are an outsider in almost every heterosexual family. You feel different, you feel like an outsider. If you are the only born-again Christian in the family you also are an outsider.”

One potential positive benefit of such discrimination, Conley said, is that it generates mobility. “If you are alienated within the family, you are more likely to leave and strike out on your own. You might leave that small town, for example, for New York or San Francisco, which could be a move upward depending on the original financial situation.”

Regarding the influence of genetics, Conley pointed to the Clinton brothers, Bill and Roger, half-siblings with the same mother.

On the one hand there is Bill Clinton, Rhodes scholar, Yale Law School graduate, governor, president, with the drive to read 100 books in 30 days, Conley said. Contrasted to him is Roger, who, at his lowest point, was snorting cocaine 15 times a day.

“It you just take that example at face value, isn’t it the perfect living, breathing example of the American dream, of meritocracy where the son with drive and ability makes it,” while the son without those traits doesn’t? Conley asked.

“The first answer to explain the differences between them would be genes,” Conley continued. “After all, they’re only half-brothers. But Roger is a talented musician, even playing in a band named Fish. Let’s say Bill and Roger grew up in my neighborhood in the middle of New York City, with its music scene. Roger could have had the opportunity for a musician’s career if he was born in New York.

Then environmental influence might have outweighed genetic differences as predictors of success. The same genes that can land you as a CEO in Connecticut, in the ghetto can land you in jail,” he said.

Even more informative of the brothers’ differences is the common, although often unconscious, parenting strategy of favoring the elder son to compensate for limited resources, Conley said. “It’s likely that Clinton’s mom put all her eggs in Bill’s basket” as an economic strategy, assuming his success would trickle down to the younger Roger.

“But, in this country, we are not the Beverley Hillbillies, who, when they strike it rich, all go out to California in a jalopy,” Conley said. “We’re more like the Beverley hillbilly. Today the reality is: I struck it rich, see you later. Maybe I’ll send you a check. The point is that different economic status pulls apart families, it doesn’t bring them together.”

Data show that more successful siblings socialize less with their families and that, after marriage, people tend to socialize more with in-laws who most resemble their economic class status, Conley said.

In contrast to the Clintons, the Kennedys had the financial resources to allow the elder boys’ mantle to be passed from Joe Jr. to Jack to Bobby to Ted, Conley said.

“The Kennedys — and the Bushes, too, for that matter — had the halo of wealth and prestige that protects the sons, that is passed on through the sons — notice I said sons, not daughters,” Conley said.

The gender inequality that affects even rich families is a reflection of society in general, he said.

“This inequality in gender keeps going no matter who is in power. There are some deeper forces at the societal level that at some point are going to rear their ugly head. As long as we have gender inequality in society, even though we’re moving toward equality, we’ll have it in our families.”

Nonetheless, gender inequality as well as racial inequality are only two of many factors affecting outcomes of success. “Even random events affect siblings differently: Vietnam, rape, health issues,” Conley said.

“Serving in Vietnam, for example, is shown [statistically] to cost about 15 percent of one’s total lifetime earnings.

“Siblings who grew up in an [economic] boom era will be different from those who grew up during a bust. So those who say it all boils down to race and gender are selling you a bottle of ‘snake oil.’”

—Peter Hart

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