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All healthy families are not alike: Christina Cross advances our understanding of dynamics among family structure, inequality, and policy

October 22, 2019

By David Pratt

A family = Mom + Dad + kid(s). Many researchers and policymakers still treat this as the standard.

But Christina Cross (PhD ’19) knows a different reality. One she has lived.

Cross, a 2019 graduate of the Ford School’s joint PhD program with U-M Sociology, researches family structures and dynamics and their influence on child wellbeing. Cross’s own youth prompted her interest. "My biological parents divorced," Cross says, "and I lived with my mom and our extended family, but then at times I lived with neither parent. I became curious how family support or the lack of it impacts child outcomes." These include education and health outcomes and young people’s ultimate success in the labor force and in establishing independent households.

Cross is originally from Milwaukee, one of the five poorest and most segregated cities in the U.S. (Detroit is another). She credits support from her family and community as critical to her own success.

"My education was complicated," Cross recalls. "I changed public schools more than a dozen times, corresponding with changes in family structure." She wanted to go to college but was not sure how. At the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, she found the Stein Scholars pre-college program, funded by Milwaukee businessperson and philanthropist Marty Stein.

Cross received funding to attend Emory University in Atlanta, where she majored in sociology and participated in the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, administered by Emory’s Department of African American Studies. Mellon Mays supports underrepresented students pursuing PhD and academic careers. Christina went about applying to the Ford School to pursue a joint PhD in public policy and sociology.

"Coming into Ford, I wanted to understand social inequality," Cross says. "Why do race, class, and other social identities overly determine who gets ahead and who falls further behind? I wanted to understand interactions between policy and what I had studied in sociology. I wanted to translate research into policy that would impact people’s lives. In the Ford School’s joint social science PhD program I got very strong empirical training that was grounded in theory. Ford does a great job with providing professionalization opportunities, which helps grad students prepare for the job market. I got great training on both sides: from U-M Sociology and from the Ford School faculty."

Cross cites in particular assistant professor Natasha Pilkauskas, her PhD advisor on the Ford School side, who studies multigenerational families. "Natasha was instrumental in helping me see connections between my work on family structure and implications for social policy, especially welfare reform," Cross says. "The two-parent nuclear family as a solution for alleviating poverty does not align with the realities of many kids. Research needs to catch up with more diverse families."

"Christina is moving us beyond how we have thought about families and policy," Pilkauskas says, "toward giving more value to families that don’t fit traditional models. She has pushed on the socioeconomic and racial side in a way the field has not seen before."

On the sociology side, Cross tells how associate professor Karyn Lacy helped her understand "the unwritten rules of academia." Cross explains, "I was a first-generation, low-income student coming from public schools. Academia was new to me. I did not fully understand the cultural norms. I had to think sociologically, to respond to the question, 'How do you frame that in a sociological way?' Karyn's guidance was instrumental in helping me develop my voice."

Cross has, in turn, served as a mentor to many students and has been heavily involved with diversity, equity, and inclusion issues at U-M. "Minority students at Ford have sometimes struggled with receiving advising and support," she says. To her mentoring, Cross has brought her own experience as a first-generation college student. "I came into an environment that largely had students from more well-off backgrounds," she points out. "They had attended elite private schools. I had had serious gaps in my education because of moving. Universities are often unaware of barriers that low-income, first-generation students face. I had to make an effort to get support. I'm not easily intimidated, but many young people hesitate to say, 'You are making references I don’t get,' or, 'Please explain this concept I struggle with.' I remember as an Emory freshman, interacting with kids that I knew had attended private schools, and they sometimes wondered aloud if I deserved to be there with them. Now, as a professor, I am committed to helping all students feel included in the university environment."

Cross points out that financial issues may directly impede scholarship; it may prevent graduate students from low-income backgrounds from attending conferences, for example, because they must pay airfare and hotels up front, with reimbursement sometimes coming months later.

Cross recently accepted postdoctoral and tenure track positions in the Harvard Sociology Department. She reports, "I'm polishing research begun at U-M, about race and class differences in family structures, family social support—financial, emotional, practical—and children’s outcomes. In the United States, we emphasize personal responsibility in a way that blames individuals who simply may not have access. I want to highlight differences in access to resources that exist across families, that determine how far each generation goes and what resources they pass to the next generation. Understanding families is important for understanding hidden inequalities."

In particular, Cross wants to draw attention to the gulf between the demographic reality of American families and current policies related to family structure. Three of the four goals of welfare reform are predicated on the ideal of a two-parent nuclear family. But fifty percent of children today will live away from their biological parents at some point. “There is a disconnect between welfare policy and these kids’ experiences,” Cross says. "A more pluralistic perspective would improve policies so they would truly support children. We need to see families for who they are today, rather than manipulate them to fit an ideal that may never really have been. Family economic resources, stability, and good parenting—including supervision and monitoring—are most important for child wellbeing. This can be done in any family."

Below is a printed version of this edition of State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View previous editions.