“Sometimes socio-economic mobility does not have positive effects on health,” Antwan Jones says, explaining his recent research on how parental socio-economic status affects childhood obesity risk. He points out that while we often think of socio-economic gains and employment as beneficial to families, the absence of parents from the home can have under-acknowledged consequences, including higher obesity rates. Teasing out these nuances in public health, race, socio-economic status, and neighborhood, is one of Jones’s passions.
Jones is an urban sociologist with a keen interest in the complexities of racial health disparities. As a professor of sociology at George Washington University and the director of Graduate Studies, he is motivated to build an empirical base of research on underserved communities throughout the United States. Antwan Jones has studied everything from diabetes and heart disease in Appalachia to the impact of acculturation on physical and behavioral environments for immigrant communities.
His recent research on childhood obesity risk, parental education, and socio-economic status takes a deep dive into differences between childhood obesity risk for black and white children. His findings indicate policy changes in family-friendly work policies that could decrease childhood obesity risk.
Can you talk about some of your most recent research?
My most recent research is a three-paper study that explores how a child’s obesity or risk for obesity is influenced by parental characteristics such as education, socio-economic status, and job status. I used the National Longitudinal Study of Youth, which has more than 20 years of data for multiple cohorts of parents who gave birth to children starting in 1986.
In the first project, published a few years ago, I found that the education of the mother was significant in reducing the risk of obesity. Because the characteristics tied to high educational attainment are also tied to parenting and caretaking practices, higher education rates among mothers are related to lower obesity rates among their children.
In the second paper, I explored how children’s weight status over time can vary based on the socio-economic status of their parents, as conditioned by the race of the parents. I found that the education of the father, and the mother’s work, were paramount in predicting child obesity. These two factors were more statistically significant predictors than household income or the father’s employment. For white and black children, the older the child becomes and the more the mother works, the less likely the child will be overweight. Therefore, the mother’s employment toward the end of childhood and adolescence protects against obesity.
Drawing from those findings, in the third paper I examined how socio-economic transitions and instability influence obesity. We often think of family socio-economic status as static, ignoring that income and education can vary over a child’s life. I looked at how changes in income, education, wealth, and employment status influence childhood obesity risk.
What I found was more nuanced than what we often think in relation to childhood obesity. I learned that as parental employment increases by hours, obesity risk increases. However, if the father becomes more educated over time, the risk of child obesity decreases. Though we often think of socio-economic mobility as positive for families, this research shows that sometimes socio-economic mobility does not have positive effects on health.
Who should read your research?
I would like other academics to read it, so that we can consider changing the limitations of this data set and others like it. These data focus heavily on mothers, so other information such as the father’s education and income were collected irregularly. Based on the nuanced results of these studies, researchers should consider creating more rigorous techniques to collect more information on mothers and fathers in their data.
I also want individuals who are interested in policymaking to read these papers. This research suggests that socio-economic status—in the form of education, income, and employment—has a large effect on obesity and it has impacts that persist over the child’s life. Making socio-economic supports accessible to parents over the course of their child’s life could help create a healthier child and, eventually, adult. For example, increasing paternal education over time through GED classes or making college courses more affordable and accessible would promote child health by decreasing obesity risk. Similarly, if we ensured that working mothers had sufficient time to spend with their children, then we could mitigate or erase that negative impact of mothers working. Expanding family leave and maternity leave policies would lessen the risk of obesity for children with working mothers.
What motivates you to do this work?
I’ve always had an interest in trying to understand the mechanisms that produce race-specific health disparities. That stems from my upbringing in a small town in North Carolina and an interest in critiquing the classic arguments that explain why people of color have different health outcomes than whites, such as the culture of poverty argument, which claims that impoverished people perpetuate behaviors that keep them and future generations economically unstable. Those factors motivate me to develop a better empirical base for understanding the structural and contextual components to child and adult health.
What are your favorite parts of conducting this research?
I love doing research—that is definitely a passion. The idea of contributing to a scholarly and public dialogue about child and adult health is something that motivates me to continue this line of research. It’s incredibly important for me and others to contribute to an academic dialogue, so that future researchers will have a good standing to expand our research and even problematize and critique it. The outcomes of much racial health research are presented in an oversimplified way, and I like to provide nuance. Whenever I have a finding that suggests complexity, it makes me smile because I’ve created a better understanding about how health inequalities operate for individuals, families, and communities.
Cut from here: However, for younger white children, the mother’s employment increased the likelihood of obesity, and for younger black children, mother’s employment was not significant in influencing obesity risk. This indicates that there is a difference in the effect of socio-economic status of white and black children at specific ages.
Antwan Jones is a professor of sociology and director of Graduate Studies at George Washington University. His other research can be found on his website: https://www.antwanjones.com/.