The New Inequality: How Changes in Families, Higher Education, and Political Life Are Affecting American Society

Other External Scholars:
David T. Ellwood, Harvard University
Christopher Jencks, Harvard University
Thomas Kane, The Brookings Institution
Theda Skocpol, Harvard University
Sidney Verba, Harvard University
Project Date:
Nov 1999
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Social, Political, and Economic Inequality

Second supplemental appropriation: February 2002, $947,347
First supplemental appropriation: February 2000, $25,919


Under the direction of David Ellwood and Christopher Jencks of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, an interdisciplinary working group of economists and political scientists will study the links between economic inequality and systematic differences in family structure, college enrollment, political participation, and civic engagement.


The New Inequality in Family Structure
David Ellwood and Christopher Jencks


Well-educated women are increasingly likely to postpone marriage, but they still tend to marry before bearing a child at a relatively late age. Less educated women are less likely to postpone childbirth, but they are also less likely to marry. Why has single parenthood risen most dramatically among the least educated, least well-off women in society?


Single parenthood is an obvious economic handicap—bringing up children alone is costly and can hamper the parent’s ability to work. But David Ellwood and Christopher Jencks, of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, hypothesize that causality may also run in the opposite direction: economic disadvantage may be a prior cause of single parenthood, even as single parenthood reinforces economic disadvantage. Well-educated women with rewarding career opportunities have a strong economic reason to defer childbirth. Less educated women, with few career prospects, may feel they have nothing to gain by deferring childbirth. Furthermore, marriage may seem increasingly risky to less-educated women, if their only marriage prospects are low-skilled men with precarious earnings.


Previous studies of the economic influences on decisions about marriage, cohabitation, and childbearing have studied each decision in isolation. Ellwood and Jencks will treat all three as interdependent decisions, showing why both well educated and less educated women tend to put off marriage, while only the well educated postpone childbearing. They will use data from the census and the Current Population Survey to measure how women’s decisions vary by age, education, race, region, and income. They will also use data from the National Longitudinal Survey to show how decisions are made over the course of a person's life. The study will be broad enough to assess how economic forces interact with cultural shifts in attitudes-- economic considerations may come to the fore only after traditional strictures against cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births break down.

Income-Related Differences in College Going
Thomas Kane


The economic benefits of attending college have more than doubled since 1980, but the real costs of tuition have risen almost as fast. Young people from high-income families have taken advantage of these rising benefits by flocking to college in ever greater numbers. But the rising costs of college have deterred those without family money from following suit. High-income families have always sent a higher proportion of their children to college, and this correlation has grown stronger since 1980.


Thomas Kane of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government will combine data from two National Longitudinal Surveys in the early 1980s and 1990s to investigate the relationship between college enrollment rates and family income, against the backdrop of changing state tuition policies and rising fees. He will discover whether enrollment among the poor has fallen most precipitously in those states where tuition fees have risen most steeply.


Kane will also carry out a survey of Boston high school students to discover whether children from advantaged families know more about college costs and how to apply for state and federal aid programs. Finally, he will use two recent waves of the National Post-Secondary Student Aid Survey to examine whether the subsidies parents give to their college-going children are affected by state tuition policies, the child's academic preparation, and the parents' own social and educational background.


Elites and Associations in the New Civic America
Theda Skocpol


American civic life used to be dominated by national associations—such as veterans’ associations, fraternal orders, and temperance crusades—which drew their members from across the spectrum of social and occupational classes. Theda Skocpol of Harvard University argues that these groups have been eclipsed in recent decades by professionally-run advocacy groups, drawing support from a narrower constituency via mailing lists and checkbooks. The loss of cross-class associations has eroded one possible source of common ground between society’s elites and those in its middle ranks. Skocpol will investigate whether cross-class membership organizations have declined, and, if so, whether this will weaken sympathies between classes at a time when the economic gaps between them are widening. Skocpol will look at the historical conditions—such as the civil rights and feminist movements— that first gave rise to the new breed of civic organizations. She will also examine the civic affiliations of individual members of the elite, past and present, using biographical records stretching back to the 19th century.


Raising Voter Turnout and the Political Influence of the Disadvantaged
Richard Freeman


Low voter turnout plagues U.S. elections, and there is some evidence to suggest that the poor and the poorly educated vote even less than the rich and the well educated. If voting habits are skewed along the lines of economic inequality, there is a danger that elected officials, beholden to the affluent and politically-active, will enact policies that disregard the non-voting poor. Using data from the Current Population Survey, the National Election Studies, and his own surveys, Richard Freeman will explain how household voting behavior is systematically influenced by income, education, and the presence of children. He will also assess the likely impact of two electoral innovations: making election days a national holiday; and using new information technologies, principally the Internet, to mobilize voters.


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