Academic journal article Family Relations

Adapting to Hard Times: Family Participation Patterns in Local Thrift Economies

Academic journal article Family Relations

Adapting to Hard Times: Family Participation Patterns in Local Thrift Economies

Article excerpt

Using survey data from a western U.S. county (N = 595), we examined how lower, middle, and higher income families negotiate a period of economic stress-the closing of a major employer in the community-through their shopping patterns. Specifically, we examined their participation in local thrift economies such as yard sales and secondhand stores. We found that lower and middle income households shop more frequently at these venues. They also tend to shop more for furniture and clothing, whereas higher income households tend to shop for antiques and trinkets. These relationships varied across the type of thrift economy examined. Overall, findings support the argument that engagement in thrift economies may constitute one mechanism families use during periods of economic stress.

Key Words: economic distress, family and social change.

Downturns in the economy have meant that many families are struggling to make ends meet. Even before the large-scale collapse of the U.S. housing market in September 2008 and its devastating effects on global markets, traditional subsidies such as pensions, guaranteed health benefits, and other traditional allowances were already in decline (Ehrenreich, 2008). Americans work longer hours each week and for more years prior to retirement than just a generation ago (Jacobs & Gerson, 2004). The average U.S. family, even with multiple income earners, is less financially stable today, as indicated by higher risks of bankruptcy and greater volatility in wages and assets such as stocks, than it was in the early 1970s - a time of high inflation (Warren & Tyagi, 2004). Consequently, many families confronted by job insecurity, income loss, and increasing debt-to-asset ratio are also at risk of emotional distress, marital conflict, and anxiety because of their financial problems (Dew, 2008; Mauno & Kinnunen, 1999; Westman, Etzion, & Danon, 2001).

Although scholars have examined a variety of familial responses to economic uncertainty, many have focused on interspousal outcomes such as how economic pressure increased the risk of emotional distress (Conger, Rueter. & Elder, 1999), how changes in consumer debt predicted both the amount of time spent together and arguments over money (Dew, 2008; Rubin, 1994), and how economic distress influenced marital conflict (Papp, Cummings, & Goeke-Morey, 2009). Research on how families have attempted to negotiate a period of economic stress through an analysis of household consumption patterns has received less attention. Therefore, we examined household consumption patterns of lower, middle, and higher income-earning households, specifically as it is related to shopping in what we call thrift economies, such as yard sales and secondhand stores. Using survey data collected in a Western county of the United States, we examined both the frequency with which households participated in various local thrift economies and the types of items for which they tended to shop.

We first present how economic restructuring and financial uncertainty have created an environment where economic adaptation becomes not only desirable but also necessary. We then pursue a discussion on how participation in local thrift economies, such as yard sales and thrift stores, could constitute one particular way that families help make ends meet in times of difficult economic circumstances. Finally, the methods and results are described and analyzed, followed by a discussion regarding the role local thrift economies play in mitigating difficult economic circumstances.

Economic Restructuring and Financial Uncertainty

In their seminal work on social stratification, Blau and Duncan (1967) found evidence of "two distinctive boundaries limiting downward mobility, one between blue-collar and whitecollar occupations, the other between bluecollar and farm groups" (pp. 58-59). These boundaries formed, in essence, a defacto safety net for blue- and white-collar workers in how far they could possibly "fall. …

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