Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Inner-City Parents under Economic Pressure: Perspectives on the Strategies of Parenting

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Inner-City Parents under Economic Pressure: Perspectives on the Strategies of Parenting

Article excerpt

The historical record of industrial societies documents the widespread consequences of economic hard times for families and children, including greater risks of marital breakdown, child abuse, and neglect (Eckenrode & Gore, 1990). These hardships are commonly linked to the recessions and depressions of economic cycles, but they also stem from an expanding economic inequality between families at opposite ends of the class structure. In the United States, this gap has significantly increased in recent decades, placing a large number of lower income families in more desperate straits.

Socioeconomic trends over the 1980s markedly reduced the size of the middle class (Duncan, Smeeding, & Rodgers, 1991) and placed lower income families under mounting economic pressures as their standard of living lost ground relative to that of upper income households (Bradbury, 1990). Featured among these declines are the younger heads of households and single parents. However, no families have experienced more disadvantages from this change than younger African American and European American families who are concentrated in the impoverished neighborhoods of America's inner cities (Jencks & Peterson, 1991; Wilson, 1987). Similar to inner-city families during depression eras of plummeting income and soaring hardship (Elder, 1974), these families face stark necessities with limited options.

What are the consequences of this rising level of economic pressure for parenting among inner-city families? Two complementary approaches are relevant to an investigation of this question. One approach traces the effect of macro, sociodemographic and economic changes on families through their impact on characteristics of the neighborhoods in which the families and children reside (Brooks-Gunn, Duncan, Klebanov, & Sealand, 1993). These characteristics include social composition, cohesion, and control, as well as the presence of service institutions and family networks.

The other approach views parents and children as actors within the correlated constraints and options of their inner-city neighborhoods. This approach focuses on the within-neighborhood heterogeneity of families, as expressed in financial and psychological resources, perceptions of neighborhood, and family management strategies (Eccles et al., 1992; Furstenberg, 1993; Walker & Furstenberg, 1994). The central questions of this approach focus on modes of family adaptation, their variations and consequences. Both of these approaches are concerned with the extent to which families select themselves into the places where they live (Tienda, 1991).

This study follows the second approach in addressing the process by which economic hardship and pressures adversely affect both the emotional health and parenting behaviors of inner-city African American and European American parents. Building upon the insights of an ethnographic study of inner-city parenting in Philadelphia (Furstenberg, 1993), a team of senior researchers, working in conjunction with their membership in the MacArthur Network on Successful Adolescent Development in High-Risk Settings; (see Jessor, 1993), developed survey instruments to investigate variations in parenting among inner-city neighborhoods. These instruments were then administered to a sample of nearly 500 Philadelphia families of lower middle-class to lower lower-class status with a young adolescent (ages 11 to 15) in the household.

In this study we test the hypotheses (a) that parental emotional distress represents an important bridge between family economic hardship and parental ineffectiveness in beliefs and actions, (b) that the process varies by family structure and social emotional support, and (c) that parents with a sense of efficacy tend to engage in family strategies that promote developmental opportunities and minimize risks. Emotional distress refers to a variety of uncomfortable subjective states, from forms of malaise to anxiety and depressed affect (Mirowsky & Ross, 1989). …

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