Privileged Dependence, Precarious Autonomy: Parental Support Through the Lens of COVID-19
Family, Life Course, and Society
Inequality and Stratification
Medicine and Health
Social and Behavioral Sciences
Objective: This article identifies how undergraduates’ responses to educational disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic were shaped by social class differences in their relationships with parents. Background: The mechanisms through which parents transmit class advantages to children are often hidden from view and therefore remain imperfectly understood. This study leverages the unique context of the COVID-19 pandemic to examine how young adults from different social class backgrounds expect, negotiate, and attach meaning to parental support in a time of crisis. Method: This study draws from in-depth interviews with a convenience sample of 48 Black and White upper-middle and working-class undergraduates from a single elite university, along with 10 of their mothers. Results: Facing pandemic-related disruptions, upper-middle-class students typically sought substantial direction and material assistance from parents. In contrast, working-class students typically assumed more responsibility for their own—and sometimes other family members’—well-being. These classed patterns of “privileged dependence” and “precarious autonomy” were shaped by students’ understandings of family members’ authority, needs, and responsibilities. Conclusion: Upper-middle-class students’ expectations for extended dependence on parents functioned as a protective force, enabling them to benefit financially and academically from parents’ material and cultural resources. These protections—which were not available to their working-class peers—may yield cumulative advantages as students progress through higher education and enter the labor market.