The Author Of ‘The Power Of The Past’ On Class And Relationships

by Michelle Crouch

I never thought of my parents as coming from different class backgrounds. I just had my “city” relatives and my “country” relatives.

Their families had roughly similar financial resources, but both my fathers’ parents were college educated, while my mom’s dad left school at 12. I thought reading Jessi Streib’s The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages might give me some insight into my own relationship but it ended up causing me to think about my parents’ marriage and my childhood in new ways, too. It’s a great read if you’re in a cross-class relationship, are the child of one, or if you sometimes are baffled by Billfold commenters who say things like “It’d be irresponsible to move out of your parents’ house before you have $10,000 in savings.”

Also, if you know any therapists or marriage counselors, please email them a link to this book right now.

Jessi Streib answers some questions for me below.

First let’s talk about how you define class in the book. How is it different than just the amount of money made by the respondents’ parents?

I define class by occupation and education, though of course these relate to money as well. I divided my respondents into two groups based on the social class in which they were raised. Blue-collar-origin respondents had fathers who worked in blue-collar jobs and had high school education at most. White-collar-origin respondents had fathers who worked in professional jobs and had at least college degrees. Most of the time, respondents’ mothers shared a level of education with respondents’ fathers. By the time I met them, the spouses had all attended college and most worked in professional white-collar jobs or as stay-at-home parents.

You talk a little in the introduction about having friendships across class lines as a kid. When did you decide this was something you wanted to study academically?

I entered graduate school wanting to study something about social class. I didn’t plan on studying relationships of any kind. I was interested in questions about upward mobility and how much we change when we’re in new class environments. I was also depressed about how much class inequality there is, and wanted to study something hopeful. Studying cross-class relationships was a way to bring my interests together.

Is there any quantitative way to measure whether cross-class marriages are increasing or decreasing with rising economic inequality, or how common they are?

It’s commonly reported that the frequency of cross-class marriages has decreased over the last few decades. This is true, if you measure class by spouses’ own educations. If you measure class by the class respondents grew up in — by their parents’ occupation and education — then cross-class marriages are becoming a little more common. There’s not an easy way to come up with a number on this — it depends on if you consider only new marriages or people who have been married at any time, first marriages or any marriages, what to do when fathers’ and mothers’ occupations and educations conflict, etc. I have some numbers but they’re not peer reviewed so I’d rather not share them.

Basically, it would be fair to say that there is no evidence that they are decreasing. Americans care more now about marrying someone with a given level of education, but less about the class they grew up in.

Where were you living when you designed the study? You recruited people with local ads, so they all lived in the area. Had they mostly grown up there?

I lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when I designed the study. I recruited people through posting flyers in schools, religious organizations, and social settings. I made a point to recruit people from outside of Ann Arbor. Most did live in Michigan, though.

Did you talk to anyone who didn’t end up fitting the parameters of the study? What were their experiences?

I focused on white couples as a way to not conflate class with race. I was shy about asking people about their race, so I did end up accidentally interviewing one black couple. This particular couple was more aware of their class differences than most of the people I talked to, but otherwise their experiences were aligned with the other people in the study.

Were any of your respondents first or second generation Americans? Apart from ethnicity, having parents or grandparents who grew up outside of the U.S. seems like it could also influence attitudes about money and class.

All respondents were born in the United States. A few had parents who were born somewhere else, but lived in the US most of their lives.

It’s so striking how many of the interviewees denied that any class differences between them and their spouses existed, and instead chalked everything up to individual personality. Why do you think this happens?

One reason is that while Americans are starting to pay more attention to social class inequality, we tend to talk about it in a limited way. When we talk about class, we talk about what people have or don’t have. We tend not to talk about how what we have shapes who we are. So we don’t see that, for example, growing up with parents who have steady jobs, college degrees, and a middle-class income gives us particular experiences, and those experiences shape who we become.

Another reason is that talking about class can be taboo. Because of the American Dream, we tend to think of people who get ahead as hard working and morally sound. Likewise, the American Dream implies that people who do not make it to the middle-class did not work hard enough. Many of the people I talked to believed in the American Dream, and therefore believed that talking about class meant talking about people’s moral worth. They didn’t want to judge their spouse, their in-laws, or their own family, so it was easier to not think about social class.

One of the things that’s really interesting is the section on different attitudes towards money. Can you summarize the different attitudes you found?

The white-collar-origin people I spoke to tended to want to manage their money. They typically liked to budget, track their expenses, and plan how to pay for their retirement and children’s college tuition. Their spouses, those with blue-collar-origins, often rejected this approach. They tended to prefer what I call a more laissez-fair approach –one that was more hands-off. They did not want to think about money as much and were more comfortable spending to enjoy the present.

Conventional wisdom might say that some of this difference can be attributed to financial literacy, that people whose parents didn’t have enough money to make ends meet or who were in debt didn’t have the opportunity to learn how to budget and all of that at home. But reading the book it really seemed to me that it’s more about an emotional relationship to money and about how to define “normal” and “doing fine” in terms of resources. Did you see education as able to influence class-based attitudes about money?

That’s a good summary. Several of the blue-collar respondents talked about how their parents had survived on much less than they had now. They interpreted this as meaning they did not need to worry about money, as they had much more than their parents. Others talked about how spending gave them a thrill. They grew up without a lot to spend, and now that they had more, they enjoyed spending in ways that they never could have as a child. Still other blue-collar-origin respondents spoke of growing up knowing there would never be enough money no matter what kind of financial planning they did. They learned to not think about money, as there was little that thinking could do to fix their problems. Altogether, they didn’t see a need to worry a lot about money.

White-collar-origin respondents had their own emotional responses to money. They grew up with a lot more; their definition of normal then meant having more. They also needed more assurance that they had the money saved to allow themselves and their children to remain in the middle-class. They had never lived outside of it, and joining the working-class was a scarier prospect.

Everyone I interviewed had been to college, but this experience did not give people similar ideas of money. Part of this might have to do with that education gives people the tools and opportunities to achieve their goals, but it does less to define what those goals should be. I don’t know that either group lacked financial literacy, they just had different ideas about how money should be used and what was normal. To put it simply, for some people having $40 in a bank account is unremarkable. For others it’s a crisis.

In general it seemed like the white-collar-origin respondents were more anxious about money, about using leisure time productively, about making sure their children would go to college and have white-collar jobs one day. Is that a fair characterization?

That’s fair. In general, white-collar-origin respondents had more specific ideas of how they wanted their lives to play out, and did more to make sure [their lives played out in those ways]. Many blue-collar-origin respondents enjoyed going with the flow; they were happy to see where life took them. They also sometimes questioned whether going to college and getting a white-collar job were the only good options. They grew up around a lot of happy, respected people who did not have these things, so they were more open to the idea of their child becoming something like a mechanic or a hair dresser.

I’m so curious as to the effect that growing up in a mixed-origin household might have on the respondents’ kids, even if both parents eventually obtained college degrees and white collar jobs. Do you think their kids would largely end up adopting white collar sensibilities since there’s more social prestige there? Do you think there would be any discernible difference in their attitudes than in those of kids raised in a shared-origin household?

I’m curious too! I don’t know what the answer is. Mothers tend to spend more time with their children than fathers, so my guess is that the mother’s way of doing things rubs off on the kids more. I would also guess that it depends on the norms of the school and community where the children grow up. If the child grows up in a professional white-collar area and has one parent with white collar sensibilities, this might be enough to give the child mostly white-collar sensibilities too.

There might be some minor differences in kids’ attitudes depending on the class origin of their parents. Children whose parents were raised in different social classes have one set of blue-collar and one set of white-collar grandparents. This may allow them to see them to observe more ways of living, compared to having family members who are all in one social class.

It’s clear that there’s so much more research in this area that could be done: looking at couples of shared class origin but different ethnic backgrounds, or vice versa, or couples where the white-collar-origin spouse didn’t graduate college. What are your plans for future research? Do you know of any other interesting research being done on this topic?

There is a lot more to do. One of the things that came out of my research was that people born into different social classes can have very similar social class outcomes as adults, despite approaching things like how to get a job in very different ways. I’m now looking at college students’ job searches to try to understand how a college degree transforms years of experiences with unequal resources into relatively equal job opportunities.

Thanks so much Jessi!

Michelle Crouch lives in Durham, NC. She experiences anxiety about her laissez-faire attitude about money.