Academic journal article Family Relations

The Role of Race/Ethnicity and Acculturation in the Functioning of Disadvantaged Mothers' Social Support Networks

Academic journal article Family Relations

The Role of Race/Ethnicity and Acculturation in the Functioning of Disadvantaged Mothers' Social Support Networks

Article excerpt

Informal support is important to the survival of low-income mothers and their children, particularly in the era of time-limited cash welfare (Edin & Lein, 1997; Harknett, 2006). Compared to their less fortunate counterparts, mothers who perceive access to basic necessities (e.g., child care, emotional support, transportation, emergency cash) have better physical and mental health (R. Turner & Turner, 1999) and report higher levels of material well-being (Henly, Danziger, & Offer, 2005), employment, and earnings (Harknett, 2006). Several studies have suggested that the children of mothers with high levels of social support also benefit, showing greater socioemotional adjustment and greater cognitive development than children with less support (Jackson Brooks-Gunn, Huang, & Glassman, 2000; Ryan, Kalil, & Leininger, 2009).

Whereas social support relates to improved family well-being, Stack's (1974) seminal ethnography of exchange in a midwestern, Black, poor community, along with more recent ethnographic findings (e.g., Dominguez, 2011), revealed strong norms of reciprocity that can be burdensome for low-income families. In an ethnography of Hispanic immigrant public housing residents in Boston, Dominguez and Watkins (2003) found that although low-income mothers often benefited from free child care and shared living expenses, family support was unbalanced, leading to conflict, frustration, and living arrangement dissolution. Although qualitative studies have examined the interplay between giving and receiving informal support, little quantitative work has done so. To address this gap in the literature, I used data from the Welfare, Children, & Families (WCF) study (Cherlin et al., 2003), a sample of disadvantaged mothers in inner city, high-poverty neighborhoods, to investigate support burden and access by (a) examining how excess network burden relates to perceived support and (b) considering how the relationship may differ by race, ethnicity, and acculturation.

Conceptual Framework

Extensive empirical work over the past 30 years has recognized social capital as a critical component to individual and community success and well-being (Coleman, 1988). As a concept that embodies the nature, structure, and resources of social relationships and social support at individual, family, and community levels, social capital serves as a conceptual framework in this study through its components of support burden and support access. I used Bourdieu's (1986) definition of social capital: "the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance or recognition" (p. 248). This definition identifies two dimensions of social capital: (a) the social relationship that allows people to go to their network members and request assistance and (b) the amount and quality of available resources (Portes, 1998).

Although social capital can be potentially valuable, it also yields social costs, particularly in resource-scarce environments (Belle, 1983). Offer (2012) suggested that in low-income networks the obligation of reciprocity can lead to "social fragmentation" or network-imposed exclusion and self-imposed network withdrawal. The theory of reciprocity suggests that sustainable relationships require a level of equilibrium such that neither party feels exploited (Portes, 1998). In addition, the rationale for reciprocal behavior follows a normative or utilitarian approach. Under the normative approach, mothers participate in informal networks because reciprocity is a moral norm; people should help each other because it is the right thing to do (Gouldner, 1960). Alternatively, under the utilitarian approach, mothers act in their self-interest in order to maximize profit; people should help each other because they will be more than compensated in the future (Blau, 1986). Although both approaches recognize the importance of reciprocity for functional social ties and social systems, the normative approach is more forgiving such that reciprocation may not be source specific or immediate. …

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