Inequality and Parental (Pandemic) Support

Elena van Stee, a doctoral student in sociology, has examined how social class backgrounds differentially impacted parental support during the pandemic.

Elena G. van Stee

When campuses closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, many students were scrambling to get home to their families or find housing. Elena G. van Stee, a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology, was suddenly met with an ideal environment to examine how young adults from different social class backgrounds expect, negotiate, and attach meaning to parental support, which resulted in a study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

“I entered Penn with an interest in how families shape our experiences and opportunities,” says van Stee, who is also an Institute of Education Sciences (IES) Predoctoral Fellow through the Graduate School of Education (GSE). “I saw all around me, as the pandemic progressed, dramatic inequalities play out in terms of the safety nets students did or didn’t have. Based on the existing literature on education and inequality, I suspected that social class differences would be salient, and I was eager to begin research on the topic.”

Van Stee interviewed 48 working-class and upper-middle-class college students during the early months of the pandemic. Students were classified as working class if neither parent had a college degree and both parents were considered to be in blue-collar or service-sector professions; students were classified as upper-middle-class if both parents had a college degree, at least one parent had a graduate degree, and both worked in occupations considered professional.

Through these interviews, van Stee found that upper-middle-class students typically turned to parents for security and reassurance—a pattern that she calls “privileged dependence.” In contrast, working-class students demonstrated “precarious autonomy” as they tried to figure things out independently. Some even provided help to other family members along the way, including financially and through caregiving.

Many of the upper-middle-class students that van Stee interviewed described their parents making life and academics easier for them by cooking meals, doing laundry and other chores, providing academic advice and assistance, purchasing technology, and, in one case, hiring an in-person tutor. This support was often easier for upper-middle-class parents to provide because their jobs allowed for remote, at-home work, says van Stee. And while upper-middle-class students typically enjoyed protected time and quiet workspaces, working-class students encountered more caregiving responsibilities and environmental distractions, particularly if their parents had in-person service jobs and they had to care for younger siblings.

Van Stee described two factors that shaped students’ responses to the campus shut-down. First, there were class differences in students’ understanding of parental authority. Second, there were class differences in the weight students gave to family members’ needs, opinions, and interests. Together, these factors shaped students’ decisions about where to live and how to interact with their families.

She explains, “I knew I’d see differences in what parents could provide in terms of real assistance to students, but I was surprised by the differences in how students talked about their decisions—particularly around housing—based on perceptions of their parents’ authority. For a lot of upper-middle-class students, for example, it wasn’t really a decision if they would go back to their parental home; a plane ticket was sent and off they went. Whereas working class students—who were paying for a lot of things on their own—really felt like they were free to make their own decisions.”

Part of that distinction, van Stee says, relates to perceived power dynamics based on parental financial leverage. However, she also notes that many upper-middle-class students felt relieved that their parents were telling them what to do and often thought their parents knew better. She says, “At times, upper-middle-class students had parents who were doctors or higher ed administrators, so students felt like they had insider knowledge. This was different from working-class students who first of all, were paying for most things by themselves and second, didn’t perceive their parents to be experts with more information than they had. So, few working-class students expected their parents to tell them what was safe or thought it was necessary to gain parental approval for their housing choices. These students had been figuring out college by themselves and they were going to figure this out by themselves too,” she says.

The differences in how upper-middle-class students sought and received significant direction and material assistance from parents, in contrast to working-class students who typically assumed more responsibility for themselves and their choices, have potential implications for inequality and outcomes, says van Stee. “Relationships with parents are a powerful—yet often hidden—source of inequality among college students,” she says.

She adds, “My research shows there were clear short-term benefits to upper-middle-class students’ dependence on parents during the pandemic. Their greater socioeconomic resources and the shared assumption that students would continue to rely on these resources protected upper-middle-class students from a variety of financial and academic disruptions. These protections may yield longer-term payoffs, thus amplifying inequalities between students and adding to growing evidence that COVID-19 exacerbated inequality.”

Building on this research, van Stee is currently working with Penn alums Arielle Kuperberg and Joanie Maya Mazelis, looking at survey data collected during the pandemic to explore socioeconomic and racial differences in students’ pandemic housing transitions. Her doctoral dissertation, which she recently defended, further explores how social class shapes young adults’ relationships with parents, but this time, she is looking at post-college young adults in their late 20s and early 30s.

She explains, “The pandemic has been an unprecedented crisis, but in the process of growing up, people navigate large and small crises all the time. I’m interested in the extent to which these patterns of privileged dependence and precarious autonomy also characterize young adults’ responses to other more mundane crises and life transitions like finding or changing jobs, buying a home, or finding a partner.”

In addition to the Journal of Marriage and Family article, van Stee published a related article in Sociology Compass in 2022 that reviews existing research on social class and parenting in the transition to adulthood: “Parenting Young Adults Across Social Class: A Review and Synthesis.” Currently, she is working on a project with Penn GSE Professor Ryan Baker and other collaborators that examines academic help-seeking behavior in computer-based learning environments. She is also collaborating with Professor Alanna Gillis of St. Lawrence University on an article that explores the effects of a highly restrictive COVID-19 behavioral policy at a liberal arts college using three waves of interviews with students. The title is “Race-Neutral is Not Race-Equal: Unequal Impacts of Restrictive Covid Behavioral Policies on College Students.”

More details about this work can be found on van Stee’s website.

By Katelyn C. Silva