Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Motives for Care That Adult Children Provide to Parents: Evidence from "Point Blank" Survey Questions

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Motives for Care That Adult Children Provide to Parents: Evidence from "Point Blank" Survey Questions

Article excerpt


Caring for aging parents can be extremely costly. While the nature of parent care and the profile of caregiving children are well described in the social sciences, we still know little about why adult children provide. Are children motivated by altruism, guilt, obligation, or gratitude? Or might they provided in anticipation of a bequest? Or might provision of care be dictated by familial norms or traditions? Perhaps a means for gaining familial recognition? A mix of these, or something else altogether? The motivation for care is recognized as a highpriority issue in the social sciences. Economists have been primarily concerned with the interplay between public and private transfers, and in particular the prospect that public transfers could supplant altruistically motivated assistance. Studies are usually limited to testing between one or two motives, which are usually inferred indirectly on the basis of observed transfers. Sociologists focus on intergenerational transfers for the insights they provide into how social bonds and networks are forged and maintained. In this paper we consider both economic and sociological perspectives but take an approach that differs from either of these disciplines. We adopt a novel, direct-question approach using newly available data from a special module fielded in the 2000 Health and Retirement Study that included questions on motivations for, and concerns with, the provision of familial assistance. Our deliberately simple description reveals abundant new information about the motivation for private transfers.

We find, for example, that transfers are not always provided free of pressure from other family members, and familial norms of obligations and traditions appear to matter for many respondents. This evidence suggests that the standard set of economic considerations-utility interdependence, budget constraints, exchange, and the like-are insufficient for a complete understanding of private transfer behavior. Rather, considerations of norms and related concepts from sociology are essential as well. The patterns are consistent with prior research findings that demonstrate, for example, that women are far more likely to provide care and take seriously family obligations. Past experience in the provision of financial help and care matters as well, sometimes in intriguingly anomalous ways. Though one must always be skeptical about reading too much into what people say about why they do the things they do (or think they will do) we nonetheless conclude that "point-blank" questions offer, at the very least, a worthwhile complement to the more conventional methods for unraveling motivations for private, intergenerational transfers.

Our data are from an experimental module, "Benevolence and Obligation"2, from the 2000 Health and Retirement Study (HRS). Many of the questions in this module reflect a more psychological perspective on understanding motivation, such as the psychic reward of recognition for helping a parent. Accordingly, our methods are exceedingly simple; we let the data do the talking by reporting simple descriptive results.

Of course, whether these responses are credible is an important, but open, question. The literatures on survey design, field anthropology, and psychology suggest any number of reasons to be suspicious of responses to direct questions about motivation or sentiment. On the other hand, in light of the obvious propensity for self-serving bias, it is noteworthy that non-trivial percentages of respondents nonetheless cast themselves or their families in negative terms. It is easy to reject the proposition that all families are characterized by altruistically motivated assistance, for instance, and it is clear that a substantial fraction of respondents are motivated by familial norms such as guilt, which fall outside the standard economic template.


There are several reasons why it is worth learning about the motivation to provide familial assistance. …

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