“All happy families are alike” declaimed Tolstoy, so as to then add the equally unsubstantiated coda: “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.
Readers may say: “So true, so very true”, but that would be in the literary sense, in that if it sounds profound it is judged to be so. Like all novelists, Tolstoy was not upon oath. It was enough that his observations be thought profound for them to be valued as such. Empirical support was not required. The truth about families may be different: unhappy families might be made alike by their troubles, while happy families might be free to divert themselves and become unalike in their own disparate individual ways.
Sociologists often regard families as powerhouses of social privilege, able to provide children unmerited advantages in the form of money, experiences, tuition and social connections. In this theory rich families are like powerful artillery guns, shooting their children further forward than the families of equally meritorious poor children, giving them fame, fortune and a headstart in the race for social advancement.
What emerges if we take an empirical approach to family success? Charles Murray (1998) looked at the NLSY79 data set, seeing to what extent intelligence test results explained later earnings levels.
The most recent calendar year with income data is 1993. All dollar figures are stated in 1993 dollars. The measure of IQ is the Armed Forces Qualification Test, 1989 scoring version, normalized for each year’s birth cohort to an IQ metric with a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 15 (NLSY subjects were born from 1957 through 1964)
Children were put into 5 groups for analytical purposes. In the IQ metric, this means break points at scores of approximately 80, 90, 110, and 120.
The Very Bright start slowly, most probably because they are at college gaining degrees which will help them get higher incomes in the long-term, as shown by the after 1982. Everyone gets age-related salary increases, but the two lowest groups reach a plateau very quickly.
This is the pattern for total family income, which includes welfare payments and spouse’s earnings.
The effect of including welfare payments and spouse’s income (the two most common types of income added to total family income) is to narrow the proportional gaps among cognitive classes while tending to widen the raw dollar gaps. The regularity of the statistical relationship is similar for both measures. The bivariate correlation of IQ to income in this population of adults in their late twenties to mid-thirties was .37 for earned income and .38 for total family income.
Those who take a largely sociological perspective might still want to argue that social forces determine both earnings and intelligence, such that social class is the hidden but fundamental factor. In fact, putting socio-economic status in the regression equation (Beta .10) does not make it more powerful than the effects of IQ (Beta .31).
An extra IQ point is associated with an extra $462 in wages independently of parental SES. However, it is still possible to argue that there are some unmeasured aspects of growing up in that particular family that ensure that family life (social class) is the main driver, and that the socio-economic status measures do not capture those unspecified factors.
Charles Murray took a look at this by using the simple technique of comparing one sibling in a family with another sibling. That is, he compares siblings who had grown up in the same home, with the same parents, but who had different IQs. If families are the engines of privilege that sociologists assume, each sibling will have an equal chance of being propelled forwards into further privilege and higher earnings.
Murray’s method was to pick a sibling in the average range (the “normals” IQs 90-109), and then find the IQ results for another sibling in that same family. By the way, these are biological siblings living with both biological parents. “Families”, they used to be called.
What does this method reveal? If families really are the engines siblings will be pretty much alike in their achievements, intelligence scores (which some aver are no more than measures of social class); in their educational achievements (which some aver are heavily manipulated by the social class of parents), and higher degrees (which some aver are very heavily manipulated by the social class and wealth of parents). All of these translate into the ability to command higher wages.
To start with intelligence, just look at the wide range of intellectual levels to be found in normal families. Yes, most of the siblings are in the normal range of intelligence, but there is evidently considerable regression to the mean. 199 out of 2148 (9.3%) of these much loved, pampered children, despite being read to every evening, and exposed to the uplifting parental level of discourse, are in the very dull range. Another 421 of these children (19.6%) are below average, something which never happens in Lake Wogebon. On the brighter side, 15.2% are brighter, and 6% are very bright.
In summary, the family is not a very efficient engine of social manipulation as regards intelligence. These average children have drifted down somewhat, and on this reading it could be because of measurement error or a genetic regression effect, but they have not all been propelled forwards by social advantage. Try as they might, parents cannot pass on all of their normalcy to all their children. Something has caused these siblings to vary, and it is unlikely to be something which is being manipulated within the family.
Will years of education show a strong family effect?
Not really. The picture is very much like that for intelligence. There are more siblings (475) with below average years of education than with above average years of education (375).
Same household, same parents, different IQs – and markedly different educational careers. The typical Normal had 1.6 years more education than his Very Dull sibling and 1.9 years less education than his Very Bright sibling. These differences in mean years of education translate into wide differences in the probability of getting a college degree.
Murray looks at the effects of degrees, of occupational privilege and eventually looks at what intelligence differences mean for earned income, the subject of our current interests.
In a very telling passage, Murray reflects on these results:
In 1993, the median earnings for the Normals was $22,000. Their Very Bright siblings already earned a median of $11,500 more, while their Very Dull siblings earned $9,750 less. The Brights and Dulls each fell somewhere in between.
These are large differences. Think of them in terms of a family reunion in 1993, with one sibling belonging to each cognitive class, all sitting around the dinner table, all in their late twenties to mid-thirties, comparing their radically different courses in the world of work. Very few families have five siblings so arranged, of course, but the imaginative exercise serves to emphasize that we are not comparing apples and oranges here – not suburban white children with inner-city black children, not the sons of lawyers with the sons of ditchdiggers – but siblings, children of the same parents, who spent their childhoods under the same roof. They differed in their scores on a paper-and-pencil mental test.
I think this paragraph should be more widely propagated. However, it was written in 1998, and it will still be news to many people.
Finally, Murray turns to Utopia. He wonders:
How much difference would it make if, magically, every child in the country could be given the same environmental advantages as the more fortunate of our children?
As you will know full well, this is the aim of many policy interventions.
Instead of concentrating on differences between siblings, as in the analyses just presented, why not go back to the entire NLSY sample and select that subset of subjects who meet the same condition – growing up with both biological parents from birth through age seven – that we imposed on the sibling sample? And why not carry the process a step further? Having already created a sample without illegitimacy and early divorce, let us slay the greatest of all the social policy betes noires, poverty. To achieve that, I lop off all subjects whose parents were anywhere in the bottom 25 percent of the income distribution as of 1978-1979. This produces a sample of 3,908 NLSY youths who grew up in households which, by 1978-1979, had a median parental income of $50,000 and a minimum income of $25,800 (1993 dollars).
The sample is utopian not just because it has virtually no illegitimacy, divorce, or poverty. The way in which it has been selected has also necessarily effected drastic improvements in the educational system in which the youths grew up (the utopian sample is highly selected for parents living in neighborhoods with good schools). The utopian sample youths had a big edge in their potential access to college, both economically and because the sample is highly selected for the kind of parents who actively encourage their children to continue their educations. The same selection factors mean that we have created a population in which the incidence of good health care, childhood nutrition, and nurturing home environments are all extremely high as compared with the population at large.
How do children from the Utopian sample compare to the actual sample?
The answer is that there is little difference. The Very Dull and the Dull would earn proportionally higher wages, which is a good thing, otherwise everything remains very much the same. Look closer, and those two groups are still doing far less well than their parents. They are on the way down, and depending on social provision where they live, will probably require some financial assistance. After two or three generations many parents in this Utopian society will have some children who require lots of assistance with their living costs, even after having been raised in ideal circumstances.
This will be a particularly acute problem because of assortative mating: less able people tend to have children with similarly less able spouses, who will have similarly low wages. Utopia will have cognitive classes and therefore differences in wealth. Add in the fact that lower ability people tend to start their families earlier in life, and tend to have more children, there will then be households with children who are being raised with far less income per child than in brighter classes. Add in the fact that lower ability people’s wages tend to plateau while higher ability incomes rise, then after 10 to 15 years there will be an increasing disparity in household incomes.
It would appear that giving every family the advantages of the best families cannot fully mitigate the consequences of differences in intelligence, and simply because of the genetic transmission of intelligence, there will be different outcomes for different children of the same families, differences which will be likely to persist and even grow sharper with passing generations.
These studies deserve wider discussion and understanding, but given that they were published in 1998 without in any way denting the regular claims that more welfare will get reduce class differences, it seems unlikely they will ever influence policy debates. Helping those in distress is a noble thing, turning a blind eye to individual differences less so.
What would Tolstoy have said about this debate? That is unclear, because he changed his views in his old age. Perhaps he should have said “All unhappy families are alike, each happy family happy in its own way”.
Tolstoy did however say something highly relevant to policy debates in general.
Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges, or beliefs. This state of mind is not common, but it is essential for right thinking…
And there we must end it, but should remember poor Sofia Tolstoy, who had a lot to put up with. She helped Leo’s writing career no end, helping him draft his novels and essays. She bore him 13 children, and coped with the early death of 3 of them. And at the end of all that, she had to watch him renounce his book royalties, take up extreme political positions and even, reportedly, take up vegetarianism.
Misery will never end.