USC Alum Studies Children and Welfare
Sociologist Linda Burton returns to the Andrus Gerontology Center to discuss intergenerational families.
Her discussion, “All Our Kin in the Era of the Hook-up” presented findings from two pioneering ethnographic studies on families and poverty in rural and urban environments.
Burton served as lead researcher on both investigations.
The first report, “Welfare, Children & Families: A Three-City Study,” was the largest ethnographic examination ever conducted measuring urban families. Set in San Antonio, Boston and Chicago, research assessed how, over time, welfare reform policies influenced the day-to-day lives of low-income African-American, Latino, Hispanic and non-Hispanic white families.
The second study, “The Family Life Project,” evaluated the development of young children in rural families in North Carolina and three counties in Pennsylvania.
“The strength of ethnographic research is that it elicits a rich description of cultural environments and the experiences of people embedded within them through close observation and in-depth interviewing,” Burton said to a lecture hall filled with students, faculty and community members.
She coined the term “spinning” to describe the phenomenon of people in urban and rural environments, regardless of race, who are “doing it.”
“By ‘doing it,’ I mean coupling, uncoupling and multi-coupling, which creates complicated family relationships,” Burton said.
She presented a series of photographs and diagrams depicting families with up to 10 children all living under the same roof but coming from six or seven different parents.
“When you’re spinning and moving relationships within a year and your partner is doing the same, you create a second parental environment.”
Spinning generates challenging consequences for children such as sibling inequality, in which certain children are favored over others, Burton asserted.
“Children, split between homes, will ask, why didn’t you ‘choose me?’ ” she said.
Access to medical coverage is also a concern. “Most people are not aware that multi-partner fertility leads to greater variability among health insurance for children in a household,” she said.
The Compton native’s own experiences influenced her research. “These are issues that I have always been curious about because of the context in which I grew up,” Burton said in a 2006 interview with Duke University news services.
When Burton graduated from the USC Davis School with a bachelor’s degree in gerontology, she had four children herself. Encouragement, she said, came from Vern Bengtson, who inspired her to continue her education. She completed an M.A. and went on to finish her Ph.D. in sociology from USC College in 1985.
“Without the support of Vern, I would not be where I am today,” she said.
In turn, an appreciative Bengtson replied, “Students like Linda remind me what being a university professor is all about.”
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