"I'll Give You the World": Socioeconomic Differences in Parental Support of Adult Children

By Fingerman, Karen L.; Kim, Kyungmin et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, August 2015 | Go to article overview

"I'll Give You the World": Socioeconomic Differences in Parental Support of Adult Children


Fingerman, Karen L., Kim, Kyungmin, Davis, Eden M., Furstenberg, Frank F., Jr., Birditt, Kira S., Zarit, Steven H., Journal of Marriage and Family


Since the start of the 21st century, income inequalities have increased dramatically throughout the world (Marshall, 2014; Piketty & Saez, 2014), and family life has become increasingly disparate by socioeconomic status (SES). Higher SES parents typically invest more time and material resources in young children than lower SES parents do (Conger, Conger, & Martin, 2010; Kornrich & Furstenberg, 2013). Theorists have suggested that parent-child ties also may serve as a vehicle for transmission of inequalities via differential parental resources in adulthood (Swartz, 2009). Indeed, parents provide vital support as young people transition to adulthood (Fingerman, Cheng, Wesselmann, et al., 2012; Furstenberg, 2010; Johnson, 2013). Parents who are better off financially possess a greater capacity to provide material support to their progeny (Swartz, Kim, Uno, Mortimer, & O'Brien, 2011). Similarly, more well-educated parents have better access to information and advice for young adults to gain opportunities for the future. Yet it is not clear whether lower SES parents compensate for lack of material support with other types of assistance, such as practical help. Parental tangible and intangible support may be pivotal in determining a grown child's own SES and accomplishments (Johnson, 2013; Swartz, 2009). In this study we examined support that parents from different socioeconomic positions provide grown children.

Consistent with prior research, we looked at parental income and education as indicators of resources (Conger et al., 2010; Henretta, Grundy, & Harris, 2002; Johnson, 2013). We examined several types of support and considered the following metrics: (a) support the average grown child in a family receives and (b) the total support a parent provides to all grown children. Total support presents a novel metric. Because of the implications of offspring receiving parental support, research has focused on the amount of support each child receives. Nonetheless, even in families in which support to each child is relatively low, parents with multiple children who need help may offer considerable resources across all children. The interplay of what parents provide and what offspring receive may shed new light on SES differences in parental support.

Socioeconomic Differences in Intergenerational Support

Parents may differentially invest in grown children as a function of SES background. Studies in the United States and Britain have found that parents who have more education or who are better off financially provide more financial assistance to adult children (Grundy, 2005; Henretta et al., 2002; Henretta, Wolf, van Voorhis, & Soldo, 2012; Schoeni & Ross, 2005). Yet much of the data addressing this issue are more than 20 years old. For example, using data from the 1980s, Eggebeen and Hogan (1990) reported that parents in poverty provided considerably less financial support, advice, and child care (for children of their grown children) than parents who were better off; only 17% of parents in poverty had engaged in support of a grown child in the past month. Nevertheless, in the 1980s, even upper SES parents did not provide a great deal of support to grown children often; only 45% of upper SES parents reported that they provided support to a child at least once a month (Eggebeen & Hogan, 1990). Similarly, Henretta and colleagues (2002) reported SES differences using data from the late 1980s in the United Kingdom and the early 1990s in the United States and found that parents who were better educated and had higher incomes were more likely to provide financial support and help with chores, but lower and middle SES parents provided more child care.

Parental support of grown children has increased dramatically from the late 1980s into the 21st century (Fingerman, Cheng, Tighe, Birditt, & Zarit, 2012). A majority of parents report providing several types of support (e.g., advice, financial, practical) to a grown child several times a month or more often (Arnett & Schwab, 2013; Fingerman, Cheng, Wesselmann, et al. …

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