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March 28, 2006

Annette Lareau (II): ideological implications

(From Pasadena, CA) Unequal Childhoods (see yesterday for a summary) catches children in the process of replicating their parents’ class positions. When children who start in poor or working class families end up as poor adults (which happens frequently), they are deprived of health, longevity, and rich human experiences. The replication of social class is by no means a new problem or a new topic of research, but it is acutely important today, when solid working-class jobs are disappearing. Just as access to the middle class is narrowing, the price of not making it there is rising.

Lareau cautions (p. 251), "Untangling the effects of material and cultural resources on parents and childrens' choices is beyond the scope of this study. These two forces are inextricably interwoven in daily life." Yet our choice of ideology depends on how we untangle these effects. In a previous post, I argued that responses to poverty vary along three axes: 1) the degree to which we believe that money (versus culture) determines economic outcomes; 2) the degree to which we like (versus dislike) the dominant, white-collar culture; and 3) the degree to which we trust (versus distrust) the state to ameliorate poverty.

Despite Lareau's disclaimer, her findings have implications for three important positions on this chart.

1. Many libertarians (like Milton Friedman, shown on the diagram) believe that everyone would be better able to obtain the material goods that they need--including such fundamental goods as education and health care--if the government stopped distorting markets by taxing, spending and regulating, and if it stopped using mandatory schools and welfare agencies to mis-educate people.

This theory is hard to sustain if parenting has a powerful and lasting cultural impact, and if culture affects material outcomes. Libertarians admire the dominant culture of competitive capitalism; but parents, if left to their own devices, will not necessarily prepare their kids for it. Lareau observes suburban parents who have trained their children (by the fourth grade) to be highly effective and confident participants in a white-collar work environment. Meanwhile, inner-city parents have given their kids very few skills, norms, or assumptions that are advantageous in the modern labor market. In fact, they morally oppose efforts to train their kids for work, feeling that children should be allowed to develop naturally instead of being overburdened with planned experiences.

It is very hard to see how less government would improve the workforce training of children from poor and working-class families. In particular, if the poor parents in Lareau's study were given more choice among schools (e.g., through vouchers) they would systematically choose schools that put less academic pressure on their kids. They distrust teachers and other educational professionals who use "concerted cultivation" and who expect them to do the same at home.

Middle-class families would prefer schools that resembled colleges or white-collar workplaces, with constant negotiation and reasoning, competition, public performances, and challenging linguistic tasks. Working-class parents would select schools that allowed their kids to develop and play (and fight) in a much more laissez-faire way. Social class would be replicated in the next generation.

2. Old-style liberals and democratic socialists believe that people need material goods to get ahead. They are ambivalent (at best) about the dominant capitalist culture, but they believe that the state can help people to obtain health, education, and welfare by giving them economic assistance. They belong at the top left of the diagram above.

Lareau herself believes that "state intervention would probably be the most direct and effective way to reduce the kinds of social inequality described in [her] book" [p. 252]. She favors per-child cash allowances, vouchers for extracurricular activities and transportation, and more education funding.

To a degree, her research supports these recommendations. For example, Willie Driver, a child of a poor single mother, wants to play organized hockey, but it is far too expensive. Ms. Driver "wishe[s] that there were programs 'where kids could just go and play for nothing.'" If she had vouchers for activities and transportation, Willie would play hockey, thereby gaining some of the advantages of the heavily scheduled middle-class kids. Ms. McAllister's son also wants to play sports, but there are no opportunities in their neighborhood. More important, if there were universal health insurance, Ms. Brindle could worry less about the care of her older daughter who is HIV-positive. That child might possibly have avoided infection in the first place if she had had access to preventive care.

However, Lareau's research reveals the limits of state assistance for just the same reason that it challenges libertarianism. Both are "materialist" theories that ignore cultural factors. Participation in extracurricular activities is a function of class not only because middle-class parents can afford teams and music lessons, but also because they fully understand the educational advantages of such activities. In their culture, scarce time must be invested in kids' human capital. As one Mom says, Saturday morning TV doesn't "contribute" anything, so she gets her son out to "the piano lesson, and then straight to choir for a couple of hours" [p. 112]. In contrast, the working-class parents view team sports and other extracurricular activities as forms of entertainment that they will consider only if their kids demand them. Thus, even if they had much more cash, they wouldn't spend their days ferrying their kids from practice to practice. They don't see the point. (Ms. Taylor takes her son to free football practices, at his request, but finds the process draining and "pray[s] we don't have to do it again.")

Lareau notes that the working-class school in her study has many fewer resources that the middle-class suburban school. I'm in favor of more funds for inner-city education. However, many of the problems that she observes in the urban school have more to do with cultural gaps between families and teachers than with lack of funds. Besides, it is possible (for instance in my city) to spend a lot of money per student and yet obtain poor outcomes. Cooperation between parents and teachers is an important factor, and it is much more likely to exist when the two groups share the same norms and priorities.

3. Moynihan-style liberals want to use the power of the state to change working-class culture so that kids are better prepared for capitalism. In fact, Lareau's proposal of vouchers for activities would have this effect. Why not give Ms. Driver cash and let her spend it on whatever she thinks is most important? Presumably, the answer is that she ought to spend money on extracurricular activities for her son, because such activities would have educational benefits that she doesn't understand. She is a highly intelligent, courageous, and caring mother, but she doesn't have middle-class values. Vouchers would reshape her priorities to be more like those of "soccer moms."

Unequal Childhoods provides some support for this style of liberalism. But it also provokes two major worries. First, Lareau's positive depiction of working-class culture should make us wonder whether we ought to manipulate those families so that they turn out more like suburbanites. Maybe the problem isn't inequality but a lousy bourgeois culture of competition, negotiation, entitlement, hectic travel, and whining. Second, some of Lareau's stories illustrate how state efforts to change culture can backfire. For instance, faced with educational institutions that criminalize corporal punishment and ban fighting even in self-defense, many of Lareau's poor urban parents (white and African American alike) simply resent and resist the schools. Teachers try to make poor parents behave more like middle-class soccer moms, but their lectures merely alienate.

Tomorrow, I will discuss the civic implications of Unequal Childhoods and draw more optimistic conclusions.

Posted by peterlevine at March 28, 2006 10:51 AM


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