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According to Rubin (1992), “the family as an institution is both oppressive and protective and, depending on the issue, is experienced sometimes one way, sometimes the other – often in some mix of the two – by most people who live in families” (p. 6). In this statement, the duality of the family-related experiences is connected to the conservativeness of the institution. Indeed, both mentioned influences of the family (oppression and protection) are concerned not with development but preservation, be it hateful or welcome.
The issue of social mobility arises in this respect: while the protective function of a family is obvious and necessary, the oppressive one is likely to restrict the opportunities of a person. By emphasizing the interrelation of the two types of influence, Rubin (1992) demonstrates that such an outcome is increasingly possible. To illustrate the tendency of the family institution to restrict social mobility, the example of working class families as described by Rubin (1992) and other researchers is going to be analyzed in this paper.
Working Class: Definition
Typically the working class is associated with “blue collar” jobs. Still, as Rubin (1992) points out, the definition of class is more complex than the classical description (p. 8). Instead, as Metzgar (2009) specifically emphasizes it, Rubin (1992) brings the social and, most importantly, cultural aspect into the idea of class (p. 405).
The working class, which constitutes almost the half of the working force in America, is holistically described by Rubin (1992), who writes about their economic, social, and cultural status, pointing out their wishes and aspirations. In fact, all the three are intertwined and interdependent. The financial state of the working class can be described as poor or relatively poor. The poverty defines the level of education that a person can achieve as the result of the lack of resources (time that is needed for work and money).
The education, on the other hand, defines the cultural and social status of the person as well as his or her economic opportunities. The vicious circle that restricts the possibility of leaving the class is very obvious in this sequence. While it can be pointed out that neither poverty nor the working class is homogenous, the problem is more or less generic for the social class (Holyfield, 2002).
Indeed, Rubin attempts to demonstrate the differences that can be found among the working class, but, apart from that, she also attempts to find similarities and general trends. The author states that major changes have affected the modern working class, including the labor revolution, which followed the establishment of the service-based economy, and social reforms, mostly, the one caused by the women’s movement.
These changes have affected the family and the children of the working class on the most private level: as women were drawn from homes into the market in greater numbers, less time was left for them to take care of the children while the men would still regard childrearing as the women’s work and have as little time.
This tendency that now defines the life of the working class demonstrates how the socio-economic and cultural status affects people’s lives. The only way to avoid these effects is to leave the current social class, a process that is termed as “social mobility”. Holyfield (2002) discusses this term and defines it as the process of climbing “up” (or, theoretically, sliding down) the social ladder and entering another class (p. 49).
This mobility, as Holyfield points out, is most unlikely: “we are born into a particular social class, and most of us will die in the same one into which we were born” (Holyfield, 2002, p. 50). Still, as people strive for a better life, their family can either assist or hinder them.
The Issue of Mobility
It is obvious that the family would be expected to support children and push them forward or “up.” However, as it can be seen from the quotation by Rubin (1992), the family typically ends up “protecting” children from the change. The reasons for this controversy include the cultural and experiential “baggage” that a child receives from the family.
Holyfield (2002) mentions the “culture of poverty” (the term that defines the poor as conservative, unable to plan and incapable of self-improvement) to define it as a stereotype immediately (52). However, at the same time, the author notes that particular traits and behaviors are indeed shaped by the circumstances of a poor life.
For example, pragmatism is being promoted in the working class environment or, rather, becomes the logical result scarce resources (Holyfield, 2002, pp. 52-53). Rubin (1992) also describes the specifics of the working class culture that is promoted among the children. An example is the belief in the promise of America, according to which, “if they deferred today’s pleasures, they would reap tomorrow’s rewards” (Rubin, 1992, p. 4). While it can be regarded as a morally positive endeavor, as Adair (2005) emphasizes, “playing by the rules” does not save the families from the shame and hardship of poverty (p. 824).
As Rubin (1992) points out, “no one can live in a society without absorbing much of the culture and ideology of the dominant group, many of its hopes and dreams” (p. 7). As a result, it is very likely that children are going to lead their life in the way their parents used to, and, consequently, it may be difficult for them to become socially mobile.
The process of values promotion is not always conscious even for the parents: for example, Hochschild (2001) points out that children learn a lot by eavesdropping and deducing. These processes define the experience that children have in relation to their families. What is more, according to Holyfield (2002), most the experiences of the poor are limited to the same socioeconomic class.
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These experiences shape people’s thinking and, consequently, lives: for example, as Adair (2005) claims, that the people who leave poverty, are still affected by it and create a new class with its own culture, to which she belongs. As a result, moving up is unexpected and contradicts the “daily experience of life”, which makes it particularly difficult (Rubin, 1992, p 8).
Education as a Way up
As it can be concluded, families often unconsciously “protect” children from positive change. However, in their conscious effort, parents often seek to push their children up the ladder, which is often reflected in their attempts of providing a decent education. As Rank (2004) points out, the problem of education and the lack of the necessary working skills is the thing that often keeps the poor from improving their lives (pp. 68-67).
Parents seem to have realized the importance of education, which is a significant improvement, but unfortunately, it is insufficient (Holyfield, 2002, pp. 50, 73; Rank, 2004, pp. 65-67). Chin and Philips (2004) demonstrate that the desire to develop the talent and cultural awareness of their children is typical for the working class parents, but they are still likely to fail because of their limited opportunities (time and money) as well as knowledge (p. 206).
In other words, it is not uncommon for working-class people to lack the understanding of the skill and talent development which affects their children’s education in a negative way (Chin & Phillips, 2004). As a result, even the conscious efforts of low-income parents to improve their children’s mobility can be unsuccessful.
Personal Choices: Conclusion
The influence of the family is, undeniably, enormous, but the actions and choices of every person can change this impact. Lilian Rubin’s (1992) story is an example of family influence and personal choices shaping the life of a human. Pushed by her mother to “marry up”, she did marry, at nineteen, and her actions prove the importance of family values for a child’s future life.
The gender inequality of the time as well as the general questionability of “marrying up” make the attractiveness of this family-approved life choice dubious, but it is obvious that her mother meant well and failed to understand the drawbacks of her plan. Further on, however, Rubin (1992) made different choices: to divorce, remarry, and get an education.
Still, it should be pointed out that these actions, while her own, could also be determined by the family in one way or another. For example, in her acknowledgments, Rubin (1992) writes that her mother’s strength of will was something she had always admired, and this was another important experience of Rubin’s (1992) life that could have shaped her decisions.
Therefore, as a continuation of the idea of the dual nature of family experience, it can be noted that, despite being protective, the working class family is capable of and very often willing to give a child an impetus for development and upward mobility. Most of the family and class characteristics, however, seem to push a person in the opposite direction, diminishing their chances of moving up the social ladder, which ends in the reproduction of the working class.
Adair, V. (2005). US Working-Class/Poverty-Class Divides. Sociology, 39(5), 817-834. Web.
Chin, T., & Phillips, M. (2004). Social Reproduction and Child-rearing Practices: Social Class, Children’s Agency, and the Summer Activity Gap. Sociology Of Education, 77(3), 185-210. Web.
Hochschild, A. (2001). Eavesdropping Adult Deals, Cultures of Children, and Care. In R. Hertz & N. L. Marshall (Eds.), Working Families: The Transformation of the American Home (pp. 340-353). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Holyfield, L. (2002). Moving Up and Out: Poverty, Education, and the Single Parent Family. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
Metzgar, J. (2009). Are “the Poor” Part of the Working Class or in a Class by Themselves? Labor Studies Journal, 35(3), 398-416. Web.
Rank, M. R. (2004). One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All. Cary, NC: Oxford University Press.
Rubin, L. (1992). Worlds of pain. New York, NY: Basic Books.