The Chronicle of Higher Education
From the issue dated March 5, 2004


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For Siblings, Inequality Starts at Home

By DALTON CONLEY

As the presidential campaign gets into full swing, candidates profess their undying devotion to what's now become the cliché of American family values. In stump speeches and debates, terms like "marriage promotion" and "working families" permeate the rhetoric of both Republicans and Democrats. The underlying image they're trying to conjure up? A mom and dad and their children battening down the hatches against the swirling winds of society: moral breakdown on one hand and an increasingly competitive economy on the other. Why does such an image resonate with us? Because as a culture we desperately want to view the family as a haven, a sheltered port from the maelstrom of social forces that rip through our lives, a port where, certainly, every family member starts out on an equal footing.

But a number of sociological and economic studies now show this to be nothing but wishful thinking. All around us is evidence -- evidence we contrive to ignore -- that siblings all too often diverge widely in social status: the president and the drug dealer; the professor and the murderer; the attorney and the bricklayer. For it is a fact of American life that class identity is not necessarily shared by brothers and sisters. After all, if our society values meritocracy and ruthless competition in a free market, what makes us think things should be any different at home?

In fact, the best way to understand why, in America, at least, one person succeeds and another does not is not to compare randomly selected individuals but rather to examine the differences within families -- to compare siblings. Siblings provide a natural experiment of sorts. They share much of their genetic endowment; they also share similar environments. So there is reason to pay attention to the astonishing news from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, which has followed 5,000 American families since 1968: Differences between siblings represent 75 percent of all differences between individuals.

In plain English, that means that if we lined everyone in America up in rank order of how much money they have -- from the poorest homeless person to Bill Gates himself -- and tried to predict where any particular individual might fall on that long line, knowing how her brother or sister fared would reduce our uncertainty only by about 25 percent. In other words, if you start at the dead middle of the American income ladder, then your brother or sister is more than a third likely to end up outside the 30th to 70th percentile range. And if you come from the richest 5 percent of American families, you have got greater odds of not ending up in the same bracket than you do of keeping pace with your brother or sister. A similar pattern holds for educational differences. For example, if you attended college, there is almost a 50-percent chance that one of your siblings did not (and vice versa). The dice are weighted by which family we come from, but they are not loaded.

The real story of American families is not the stuff of political slogans. In each household, there exists a pecking order among siblings, a status hierarchy. That pecking order is not necessarily determined by the natural abilities of each individual -- nor even by the intentions or will of the parents. There are larger social forces at work: gender expectations, the economic costs of education, changing labor-market conditions, divorce, early loss of a parent, geographic mobility, religious and sexual orientation, and even arbitrary factors such as luck and accidents. In other words, the family is not a simple sorting machine. It grows and contracts; it goes through economic ups and downs (along with society at large); and it experiences personal triumphs and traumas. Each of these changes is stamped upon the offspring differently depending on their age, sex, birth position, and other individual propensities. As a result, we cannot readily predict nor control our children's fates as much as we'd like to.

But we can come to grips with what really goes on within families and how intimate events interact with larger cultural ones. In general, there are three different levels of change that create sibling differences. One involves broad social or economic changes that take place in the society as a whole, one results from changes in the family as a whole, and a third operates directly on individual siblings. To take the first kind of change, for example, think of one kid coming of age during the early 1990s -- before the Internet revolution -- and compare her economic opportunities to those of her younger brother who jumps into a completely transformed labor market just a few years later.

Or take the case of Skip, 56, and Jim, 50, two brothers from a middle-class household who matured at different points in the 1960s (these case studies and others are from in-depth interviews). Their family history shows just how subject the American family is to cultural trends.

When Skip entered high school in Fairfax, Va., Kennedy was in the White House, and America was still very much as it had been in its postwar halcyon slumber. It was the age of the space race and the missile gap -- really still the 1950s -- and the family reflected that: Skip and Jim were raised in a strict household dominated by Robert, their critical and demanding father, who was a career Army officer. Robert was the only son of a South Boston Irish Catholic family. His escape from a tough neighborhood came with his World War II experience: He was a fighter pilot who was shot down more than once and spent significant time in an internment camp. He returned from the European campaign a hardened man, resentful of the limited opportunities that Irish people from scrappy backgrounds enjoyed, despite his sacrifices for the country. So he stayed in the Army and treated his sons as if they were soldiers in his command, offering a hand to shake in lieu of a hug or kiss -- up until the day he died in 1994.

Skip met or exceeded all of Robert's expectations: starting on the Fairfax High School football team, being named All-State, and then gaining admission to the U.S. Air Force Academy. At first, father and son had trouble getting a congressman to sponsor Skip's entry into the relatively new military academy, since local congressmen were already committed to other candidates. Then they sought the help of Rep. John W. McCormick of Massachusetts, speaker of the House at the time, who also happened to be from South Boston and had known Skip's grandparents from the old neighborhood. They finally gained his ear, only to have their hopes dashed when he told them that the slots had already been taken for that year. But then, an hour or two after they had returned home disappointed, the phone rang. It was McCormick, informing Robert that one of his nominees had been disqualified for medical reasons.

Skip's timing had been impeccable -- and it continued that way. Since his pilot training took so long and since deployments were based partially on experience, he escaped doing any time in Vietnam, other than flying a few airlift missions in 1974, after formal U.S. involvement had ended. After a distinguished career as an officer, he retired to the private sector in 1989, working as a highly paid lobbyist for the Northrop Grumman Corporation, one of the largest defense contractors. (Of course, now he says that he wished he could have been an artist or a guitarist.)

Jim, by contrast, came of age after the countercultural revolution of the '60s and found himself caught between his father's values and those of his peers. It was the early '70s, and even playing sports was not considered cool at the time. Drug use was rampant, tie-dye was the fashion of the day, and the antiwar movement was raging. Jim's behavior reflected the new trends. He dressed too casually for his father's taste and practically made his old man's blood boil with his long hair. But he tried his best to please his father -- he joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps, first at a junior college and then at a four-year institution. But by then, ROTC students who wore their uniforms on campuses were often jeered at or worse. The Army was hitting a low point in terms of morale and respect. Jim ended up torn between the expectations of his father and the social unrest that surrounded him.

As a result, he was ambivalent about everything his brother had pursued. Set by his father on the same path, Jim's career never matched that of the golden boy Skip. Though he eventually did become an Army officer, he held a series of low-status positions, and after leaving the service ended up teaching high-school-level Junior ROTC in Florida. Today Skip makes two to three times what Jim makes and has significantly more wealth.

The consequences of their distinct trajectories are not just economic, however. The siblings rarely speak. "My mother is sort of the intermediary," Skip relates. "I'll ask her how my brother's doing." Both brothers are at a loss for why they don't communicate more, chalking it up to the age difference, spaced just a few years apart -- but separated by a generation gap. Siblings in American society already have less contact than those in most other countries, so when a relationship is fraught with social and economic differences, nothing is written in blood -- so to speak -- saying that siblings have to stay in touch. Of course, with an emotionally distant father, family psychological dynamics probably didn't help matters between Skip and Jim.

Other factors that create sibling differences take place not in society but within the family itself. For example, Maureen and her five younger siblings experienced a terrible tragedy when their father died suddenly in a car accident. When their mother was forced to go to work full time, it fell to Maureen, 13 at the time, to bear the twin burdens of housework and child-rearing responsibilities. In her case, a family transition led to a Cinderella-like existence that turned her life inside out, while her younger siblings were spared.

Or take the most common form of family disruption -- divorce. Here the debate is most often about whether or not divorce scars the long-term mental health and economic prospects of kids. The results of studies on that issue are mixed. Some experts (take Judith Wallerstein in The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce) argue that divorce almost universally damages children's self-esteem and developmental trajectories. Others (like E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly in /I>For Better or Worse: Divorce Reconsidered) say that such negative effects are overstated and that most kids bounce back from family breakups. The truth is that neither set of experts is right -- or wrong. One of the best ways to see this is to look at sibling differences. When parents separate, then divorce, there's no one readily identifiable response by the children but a whole range. And children react to the breakup idiosyncratically, whether they're from different families or the same one.

Caryn, 31, and David, 27, are a case in point. They were raised in a tightknit household in Philadelphia where -- they both agree -- they were treated equally by their parents. Their mother and father were upwardly mobile, both doing stints as schoolteachers after having grown up in working-class families. Their dad attended a historically black college before earning an M.B.A. at the prestigious Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, at which point he left the classroom to enter the world of commerce, eventually starting a successful business aiding restaurants in fire prevention. Caryn and David's parents formed part of the "talented tenth" -- in the century-old words of W.E.B. Du Bois -- the highly educated segment of the African-American population that served as leaders and role models within their communities.

Because their parents saw the value of education firsthand in their lives, they made it a point to send their children to private high schools (despite, or perhaps because of, their teaching in the public system). The goal was to maximize their children's social advantages and solidify their entry into the upper middle class. Both kids, initially at least, seemed to rise to their parents' expectations, achieving good grades as well as participating in extracurricular activities. Caryn elated her parents in her senior year of high school when she gained admission to Harvard University on a scholarship. Everything seemed on track for the family's "class project" of upward mobility. But then during Caryn's time at Harvard, family trauma struck: It came to light that her father was having an affair.

Their dad had always preached those same family values that the politicians speak of, so his behavior came as a particular shock to the family. The marriage quickly dissolved. Almost immediately, both Caryn's and David's grades dropped. It was a good thing for Caryn that she was already safely ensconced in the Ivy League. Away from home and thus directly avoiding the painful aftermath of her parents' divorce, she buried herself in activities and schoolwork, slowly reviving her grades. But David was left to face the family's dissolution head on -- and alone -- and during the critical high-school years. His grades slipped only for a time, but for him, the academic dip made all the difference in the world. He did not gain acceptance to the colleges to which he applied and instead was forced to enroll where his mother knew someone who worked in the admissions department. Turned off by his classes, he soon dropped out.

David has since shuttled in and out of a series of three majors, four colleges, and countless marginal jobs. Now approaching 30, he claims that he is finally "turning his life around." He earnestly hopes to complete his college degree soon -- and fantasizes about following in his father's footsteps to obtain an M.B.A.

Caryn, meanwhile, finished a master's degree and has earned a salary approaching six figures, working in educational administration. David, big dreams aside, makes about a tenth of his sister's income. The divorce disrupted his academic trajectory, and it set into play a whole set of male-identity issues that may have also affected his career. He both longed to emulate his now-absent father and felt ambivalent about him. That undoubtedly helped contribute to his lack of commitment to any one set of goals. So in Caryn and David's case, not only did their respective ages at the time of their parents' divorce create an important distinction in their responses but their respective genders did as well.

Finally, some sibling differences are determined by events unique to specific brothers or sisters. Christy, for example, was an accident victim. She slipped on wet concrete, fell, and struck her head against a wrought-iron chair, suffering a basilar skull fracture. After she underwent a series of surgeries, her life was forever different from her siblings' -- all because of chance.

Such random acts that befall brothers and sisters can end up overdetermining their status as golden child or black sheep. At age 15, Riana was gang-raped at the county fair in her small New England town. Despite having been an A student until that point, she immediately and understandably went into a downward spiral of depression, relying on illicit drugs to self-medicate. "After that fateful day," she explained, "I went from this naïf loving butterflies to just this big whirling mess of stuff. I wanted to numb myself. And I guess my parents were just trying to wait until I got through it. But the truth was I wasn't getting through it."

Riana's trauma was complicated by her family's desire to contain the situation. Her parents, highly educated and psychologically sophisticated, nonetheless took advantage of her shock and numbness to persuade her not to tell her sister. They did not want both their daughters knocked off course by this tragedy. And they were successful in that respect: Today her sister is an author and editor in New York City, while Riana, now 37, is cleaning houses in her home state of New Hampshire. (To boost her income, she has recently started a business painting pictures on wild-turkey feathers, carrying on a craft that has been practiced for centuries by American Indians.)

Those are among the many stories that illustrate the complicated, rather unpredictable family life of American siblings. We tend to think that brothers and sisters dramatically differ from one another only in extreme cases. The truth is that some families are rafts overcome by stormy seas, some are sailboats tacking through the wind, and some are big, stable ocean liners unconcerned about the weather. In other words, when parents have lots of "class" resources to go around -- time, money, social connections -- kids often are more alike since parents don't have to "choose" between them and can actively compensate for disparities in skill or pluck. (Think of the Kennedys or the Bushes.) However, when parental resources are stretched thin because of financial hardship, large family size, short spacing between kids, single parenthood, minority racial status, and so on, kids tend to drift apart in terms of their socioeconomic status. (Think Bill and Roger Clinton.)

While it may be surprising to realize how common sibling inequality is on the whole, my analysis of the Study of American Families, a 1994 supplement to the General Social Survey done by the University of Wisconsin sociologists Robert M. Hauser and Robert D. Mare, shows that Americans are quite aware of sibling disparities within their own families. For instance, when given a choice of 14 categories of kin ranging from parents to grandparents to spouses to uncles, a whopping 34 percent of respondents claimed that a sibling was their most economically successful relative. When the question is flipped, 46 percent of respondents report a sibling's being their least successful relative. Both these figures dwarf those for any other category of kin.

Taken as a whole, these statistics and stories present a starkly darker portrait of American family life than we are used to. We may want to think that the home is a haven in a heartless world, but the truth is that inequality starts at home. These statistics also pose problems for those people concerned with what seems to be a marked erosion of the idealized nuclear family. In fact, they hint at a trade-off between economic opportunity and stable, cohesive families. The more we promote a free-market meritocracy, the more we may be undermining the integrity of the family by fostering inequalities within. In this way, the cultural priorities of the Republicans and Democrats are in tension with their economic values. For example, if the GOP claims to be the party of family values, it is also the party of unbridled economic Darwinism, which may undercut the family structure that Republicans say they cherish. Party politics aside, there is a fundamental tension in American society between family and economy that won't be resolved anytime soon.

So Skip and Jim shouldn't feel bad that they don't speak often. As much as Jim may resent his father for Skip's favored-son status, he's ignoring half the story -- the societal forces that were tugging on each family member in a different way. That tension between the wider world and the cozy home was palpable in their house growing up, Skip recounts: "It was livable tension, it was not an unhappy house; don't get me wrong. But we didn't run around embracing and kissing everybody either. ... It wasn't the Waltons."

It never is.

Dalton Conley is director of the Center for Advanced Social Science Research at New York University and author of The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why, published this month by Pantheon.

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Volume 50, Issue 26, Page B6

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