The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why

The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why

by Dalton Conley

We want to think of the family as a haven, a sheltered port from the maelstrom of social forces that rip through our lives. Within the family, we like to think, everyone starts out on equal footing. And yet we see around us evidence that siblings all too often diverge widely in social status, wealth, and education. We think these are aberrant cases—the

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We want to think of the family as a haven, a sheltered port from the maelstrom of social forces that rip through our lives. Within the family, we like to think, everyone starts out on equal footing. And yet we see around us evidence that siblings all too often diverge widely in social status, wealth, and education. We think these are aberrant cases—the president and the drug addict, the professor and the convict. Surely in most families, in our families, all children will succeed equally, and when they don’t, we turn to one-dimensional answers to explain the discrepancy—birth order, for instance, or gender.

In this groundbreaking book, Dalton Conley shows us that inequality in families is not the exception but the norm. More than half of all income inequality in this country occurs not between families but within families. Children who grow up in the same house can—and frequently do—wind up on opposite sides of the class divide. In fact, the family itself is where much inequality is fostered and developed. In each family, there exists a pecking order among siblings, a status hierarchy. This pecking order is not necessarily determined by the natural abilities of each individual, and not even by the intentions or will of the parents. It is determined by the larger social forces that envelop the family: gender expectations, the economic cost of education, divorce, early loss of a parent, geographic mobility, religious and sexual orientation, trauma, and even arbitrary factors such as luck and accidents. Conley explores each of these topics, giving us a richly nuanced understanding that transforms the way we should look at the family as aninstitution of care, support, and comfort.

Drawing from the U.S. Census, from the General Social Survey conducted by the University of Chicago over the last thirty years, and from a landmark study that was launched in 1968 by the University of Michigan and that has been following five thousand families, Conley has irrefutable empirical evidence backing up his assertions. Enriched by countless anecdotes and stories garnered through years of interviews, this is a book that will forever alter our idea of family.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
The effects of divorce, working mothers, changes in families' income and social position -- these and many other matters come under Conley's microscope. Though at times he comes up a bit short in his avowed desire to avoid writing sociologese, on the whole the book is lucid and provocative. Certainly it will make you think twice about how you became what you are, and if you're a parent it will -- or should -- make you think hard about the pecking order you've created and its potential influence on your children's lives. — Jonathan Yardley
Publishers Weekly - Publishers Weekly
The surprising fact that sibling differences account for three-quarters of all differences between individuals in explaining American economic inequality acts as a challenge for NYU sociology professor Conley. Drawing on economic studies conducted by the U.S. Census, University of Michigan and University of Chicago, and interviewing hundreds of subjects, Conley illuminates provocative findings. Counter to the belief that birth order predicts a child's success and role within a family, he argues that what really matters is family size, parental time and attention, and how much of the family's financial resources are available for the child. Conley concludes from his findings that parents can more easily affect their children's development by their choices of family size and spacing of births than by attempts to move up the economic ladder. He is candid about the limitations of current surveys and discusses the complexities of studying an institution whose modern workings are contingent on slippery factors (e.g., gender, race, class). Despite all he's learned, the staggering number of factors affecting the workings of a family frustrates Conley's desire to come up with hard and fast rules. Yet from what he has found thus far, he can proclaim, "the family is not a haven in a harsh world. It is part and parcel of that world, rat race and all. Inequality, after all, starts at home." Although Conley's academic prose may challenge general readers, graduate students looking for thesis topics will be well served: he has tons of ideas where research could go to get more answers. Agent, Sydelle Kramer. (Mar. 2) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal - Library Journal
Why does one sibling "succeed"-attain social and economic status and advantage-while another does not? Challenging the classic nature/nurture and birth-order explanations as insufficient to explain disparate sibling success levels, Conley (sociology, NYU; Being Black, Living in the Red) utilizes three major national statistical studies and interviews with 175 siblings from 68 families. His analysis concludes that a wide array of factors within the family, shaped by and reflective of the greater society, drive the future status of individuals who share the same gene pool. Contending that "inequality starts at home," he details the impact of such factors as gender dynamics, the family's class position, and parental death or divorce on sibling success rates in the educational, occupational, and relational realms. Each chapter begins with a story or case study that personalizes the research, quickly engaging the reader. Readable, fascinating, and more accessible than former studies on sibling success (e.g., Koen Van Eijck's Family and Opportunity), Conley's book promises to be of interest to any public or academic library patron curious about sibling differences. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/03.]-Lori Carabello, Ephrata P.L., PA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The roles of nature, nurture, and birth order as they relate to socioeconomic success. "The family is not a haven in a harsh world," writes Conley (Sociology/NYU; Honky, 2000). "It is part and parcel of that world, rat race and all. Inequality, after all, starts at home." Or not, for the author finds that with adequate resources-time, money, connections-parents can compensate for natural disabilities and provide opportunities that those with attenuated resources could never deliver. Notions of nurturing and the tracking of genes simply do not explain socioeconomic success in and of themselves, declares Conley, supporting his thesis with as many anecdotal examples and study results as anyone could muster in hopes of vouching one position or another. Life is just too messy and complicated for a single explanation, and if there is a pecking order within the family unit, Conley suggests it will be "conditioned by the swirling winds of society that envelop the family," including gender expectations, the cost of schooling, the divorce rate, geographical mobility, religious and sexual orientations, not to mention plain luck either good (stumbling across mentors) or bad (lousy personal health), and-not to forget-nature, nurture, and birth order. Conley also figures degrees of trauma-death, incapacitation of a parent, desertion of a parent, divorce-and how they play upon the birth order if, for example, the oldest sibling has moved out before the trauma. He also investigates such issues as how younger members of the family understand the sacrifices of the older sibling when they have to toss all to help lend financial support. When no factor holds any definitive edge in explaining different levelsof sibling achievement, asks Conley, why accept anything less than more variables to the equation? Why indeed?Reveals a much more fascinatingly shaded world than that of those who choose either nature or nurture. Agent: Sydelle Kramer/Frances Goldin Agency

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An Introduction to the Pecking Order

Let me start with a story.

Once upon a time a future president was born. William Jefferson Blythe IV entered the world one month premature but at a healthy six pounds and eight ounces. At twenty-three, his mother, Virginia, was young by today's standards, but perhaps a touch old for Arkansas in the 1940s. She was a widow, so times were tight during Bill's early years. In fact, times would be tough during all of Bill's childhood. Nonetheless, he seemed destined for great things. According to family lore, in second grade Bill's teacher "predicted that he would be President someday."[1]

His mother eventually married Roger Clinton, but that didn't make life any easier for Bill. Roger was a bitterly jealous alcoholic who often became physically abusive to his wife. Bill cites the day that he stood up to his stepfather as the most important marker in his transition to adulthood and perhaps in his entire life. In 1962, when Bill was sixteen, Virginia finally divorced Roger, but by then there was another Roger Clinton in the family, Bill's younger half brother.

Though Bill despised his stepfather, he still went to the Garland County courthouse and changed his last name to Clinton after his mother's divorce from the man—not for the old man's sake, but so that he would have the same last name as the younger brother he cherished. Though they were separated by ten years, were only half siblings, and ran in very different circles, the brothers were close. The younger Roger probably hated his father more than Bill did, but he nonetheless started to manifest many of the same traitsas he came of age. He was a fabulous salesman: at age thirteen, he sold twice as many magazines as any of his classmates for a school project, winning a Polaroid camera and a turkey for his superior effort. He also had an affinity for substance abuse: by eighteen, he was heavily into marijuana. During Bill's first (unsuccessful) congressional campaign in 1974, Roger spent much of his time stenciling signs while smoking joints in the basement of campaign headquarters.

As Bill's political fortunes rose, Roger's prospects first stagnated and then sank. He tried his hand at a musical career, worked odd jobs, and eventually got into dealing drugs. And it was not just pot; in 1984, then-governor Bill Clinton was informed that his brother was a cocaine dealer under investigation by the Arkansas state police. The governor did not stand in the way of a sting operation, and Roger was caught on tape boasting how untouchable he was as the brother of the state's chief executive. Then the axe fell. After his arrest, Roger was beside himself in tears, threatening suicide for the shame he had brought upon his family—in particular, his famous brother. Upon hearing this threat Bill shook Roger violently. (He, in truth, felt responsible for his brother's slide.)

The next January, Roger was sentenced to a two-year prison term in a federal corrections facility in Fort Worth, Texas. Bill describes the whole ordeal as the most difficult episode of his life. David Maraniss—the author of First in His Class, the most comprehensive biography of Clinton to date—summarizes the family situation as follows:

How could two brothers be so different: the governor and the coke dealer, the Rhodes scholar and the college dropout, one who tried to read three hundred books in three months and another who at his most addicted snorted cocaine sixteen times a day, one who could spend hours explaining economic theories and another whose economic interests centered on getting a new Porsche? In the case of the Clinton brothers, the contrasts become more understandable when considered within the context of their family history and environment. They grew up in a town of contrast and hypocrisy, in a family of duality and conflict. Bill and Roger were not so much opposites as two sides of the same coin.[2]

If asked to explain why Bill succeeded where Roger failed, most people will immediately point to genetic differences. After all, they were only half siblings to begin with. Others will pin it on birth order, claiming that firstborns are more driven and successful. But both of these accounts rely on individual explanations—ones particular to the unique biology or psychology of Bill and Roger—and both are incomplete. Was Bill more favored and more driven because he was a firstborn? My research shows that in families with two kids, birth order does not really matter that much. In fact, just under one-fourth of U.S. presidents were firstborns—about what we would expect from chance. The fact is that birth position only comes into play in larger families. But what about genes: was Bill simply luckier in the family gene pool? That may be so, but it still does not explain why sibling disparities are much more common in poor families and broken homes than they are in rich, intact families. In fact, when families have limited resources, the success of one sibling often generates a negative backlash among the others.

Sure, if one kid is born a mathematical genius and the other with no talents whatsoever, their respective dice may be cast at birth. But for most of us, how genes matter depends on the social circumstances around us. A child in one family may be born with innate athletic talent that is never nurtured because the parents in that family value reading ability over all else. Yet in another family, the fit between the individual talents of a particular child—say spatial reasoning—and the values of the parents may be perfect, and those abilities are realized. Finally, what kind of rewards talent brings depends entirely on the socioeconomic structure of the time. Fifty years ago, musical talent might have led to a decent living. Today—in an economy that rewards the most popular musicians handsomely at the expense of everyone else—innate musical ability is more often a route to financial struggle.

In Bill Clinton's case, he obviously had good genes—which contributed to his sharp mind, quick wit, tall stature, and verbal charisma—but there was not much advantage to being the firstborn. What really made a difference in his life was the good fit between his particular talents, the aspirations of those around him, and the political opportunities in a small state like Arkansas. This good fit combined with his family's lack of economic resources to generate an enormous sibling difference in success. However, had Virginia had money, she might not have had to put all her eggs—all her hopes and dreams—in Bill's basket. She might have been able to actively compensate for Bill's success by giving Roger extra financial and nonfinancial support—sending him, for example, to an elite private school when he started to veer off track. Instead, Bill's success seemed to come at the expense of Roger's—particularly when it led Roger to a false sense of invincibility.

On the surface, it may seem that the case of the Clintons is atypical. And, of course, a pair of brothers who are, respectively, the president and an ex-con is a bit extreme. But the basic phenomenon of sibling differences in success that the Clintons represent is not all that unusual. In fact, in explaining economic inequality in America, sibling differences represent about three-quarters of all the differences between individuals. Put another way, only one-quarter of all income inequality is between families. The remaining 75 percent is within families.[3] Sibling differences in accumulated wealth (i.e., net worth) are even greater, reaching 90-plus percent.[4] What this means is that if we lined everyone in America up in rank order of how much money they have—from the poorest homeless person to Bill Gates himself—and tried to predict where any particular individual might fall on that long line, then knowing about what family they came from would narrow down our uncertainty by about 25 percent (in the case of income). In other words, the dice are weighted by which family you come from, but you and your siblings still have to roll them. For example, if you come from a family that ranks in the bottom 5 percent of the income hierarchy, then you have a 40 percent chance of finding yourself in the lowest 10 percent, a 21 percent chance of making it to somewhere between the 30th and 70th percentile, and only a one in a thousand chance of making it to the top 10 percent. If you come from the richest 5 percent of families in America, then your odds are flipped. And if you start at the dead middle of the American income ladder, then you are about 63 percent likely to end up somewhere in that 30th- to 70th-percentile range, with a 4 percent chance of ending up either in the top or the bottom 10 percent.[5] A similar pattern holds for educational differences. For example, if you attended college there is almost a 50 percent chance that one of your siblings did not (and vice versa).[6]

What do sibling disparities as large as these indicate? They imply an American landscape where class identity is ever changing and not necessarily shared between brothers and sisters. Taken as a whole, the above statistics present a starkly darker portrait of American family life than we are used to. We want to think that the home is a haven in a heartless world. The truth is that inequality starts at home. These statistics also pose problems for those concerned with what seems to be a marked erosion of the idealized nuclear family. In fact, they hint at a trade-off between economic opportunity and stable, cohesive families.

While it may be surprising to realize how common sibling inequality is on the whole, my analysis of national data shows that Americans are quite aware of sibling disparities within their own families. For instance, when given a choice of fourteen categories of kin ranging from parents to grandparents to spouses to uncles, a whopping 34 percent of respondents claimed that a sibling was their most economically successful relative. When the question is flipped, 46 percent of respondents report a sibling being their least successful relative. Both these figures dwarf those for any other category.[7] When respondents were asked to elaborate about why their most successful relative got that way, their most common answer was a good work ethic (24.5 percent); when we add in other, related categories like "responsible, disciplined," "perseverance, motivation," or "set goals, had a plan," the total is well over half of all responses. Contrast that with the 22.6 percent that covers all categories of what might be called socioeconomic influences, such as "inheritance," "coming from a family with money," "marrying money," and so on. When accounting for the success of our kin, individual characterological explanations win out.

The pattern becomes even more striking when we flip the question to ask about the misfortune of the least successful relative. Only 9.6 percent of respondents cite social forces like poverty, lack of opportunity, or the pitfalls of a particular field as an explanation. Meanwhile, a whopping 82.4 percent cite individualistic reasons—having a "bad attitude" or "poor emotional or mental health." The single largest category was "lack of determination."[8]

That shows us how harsh we are on our brothers and sisters. Are we fair when we pass this kind of judgment, or terribly biased? I think the latter. In this book I challenge the perceived split between individual personality-based explanations for success and failure, and sociological ones. I argue that in each American family there exists a pecking order between siblings—a status hierarchy, if you will. This hierarchy emerges over the course of childhood and both reflects and determines the siblings' positions in the overall status ordering in society. It is not just the will of the parents or the "natural" abilities of the children themselves that determines who is on top in the family pecking order; the pecking order is conditioned by the swirling winds of society, which envelop the family. Gender expectations, the economic cost of schooling in America, a rising divorce rate, geographic mobility, religious and sexual orientations—all of these societal issues weigh in heavily on the pecking order between siblings. In other words, in order to truly understand the pecking orders within American families, you cannot view them in isolation from the larger economy and social structures in which we live. The family is, in short, no shelter from the cold winds of capitalism; rather it is part and parcel of that system. What I hope you end up with is a nuanced understanding of how social sorting works—in America writ large, and in your family writ small. And just maybe—along the way—we will all have a little more sympathy for our less fortunate brothers and sisters.

Who Gets Ahead?

Books about siblings debate why children raised by the same parents in the same house under the same circumstances turn out differently—sometimes very differently. They offer genetic explanations, or focus on birth order or the quality of parenting. The Pecking Order takes all these issues into account, but, based on years of research with three separate studies, it now moves us beyond those factors. Why is there a pecking order in American families, and how does it work? The reasons go way beyond relationships between family members. Americans like to think that their behavior and their destiny are solely in their own hands. But the pecking order, like other aspects of the social fabric, ends up being shaped by how society works.

In fact, siblings serve merely as a tool by which I hope to shed light on why some of us are rich and others poor; on why some are famous and others in America are anonymous. However, in figuring this all out, we do not gain much traction by comparing Bill Clinton with Joe Q. Public, Bill Gates with the average reader of this book, or any pair of randomly associated people. Some books tell you that the best way to understand why one person succeeds and another does not is to examine big amorphous categories like class or economics or race. I say the best way to do it is to examine differences within families, specifically to compare siblings with one another. Only by focusing in on the variety of outcomes that arise within a given family can we gain a real understanding of the underlying forces, of the invisible hands of the marketplace, that push each of us onto our chosen (or assigned) path in life. Siblings provide a natural experiment of sorts. They share much of their genetic endowment.[9 ]They also share much of the same environment. So it's logical to ask: how and why is it that some siblings end up in radically different positions in life? If we find an answer to that question, I think we will understand something very fundamental to American life.


1. David Maraniss, First in His Class: The Biography of Bill Clinton (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), p. 424.

2. Ibid.

3. This is represented by 1 - R2S (where R2 is the square of the sibling correlation coefficient in log-income). Mary Corcoran, Roger Gordon, Deborah Laren, and Gary Solon estimate a brother-brother correlation in permanent income of .45 using data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. See page 364 of their "Effects of Family and Community Background on Economic Status," American Economic Review 80 (1990): 362-66. Their estimates for women's sibling correlations in family income is .276 and .534 for men's log-earnings. (Gary Solon, Mary Corcoran, Roger Gordon, and Deborah Laren, "A Longitudinal Analysis of Sibling Correlation in Economic Status," Journal of Human Resources 26 [1992]: 509-34.) Sibling resemblance for other outcomes like welfare usage, education, and occupation follow similar patterns and are sensitive to the specification deployed—particularly for nonlinear measures. For example, if a woman's sister has received welfare, she is over three times more likely to use it herself (.66 versus .20 probability in their PSID sample). Differences for "persistent participation" in welfare programs by sibling welfare status are even greater. When I reanalyze more recent waves of PSID data—in which the siblings are on average older and more stable economically—I find that the sibling correlation has not changed much overall, but notably for sisters (see Dalton Conley, "Sibling Correlations in Socio-Economic Status: Results on Education, Occupation, Income and Wealth," working paper, Center for Advanced Social Science Research, New York University, 2003). The sibling correlation is .449 for the natural logarithm of brothers' income-to-needs ratio (slightly lower for log-income); for sisters the correlation in log-income-to-needs is .555. (It is .517 for all siblings). For sisters the total (logged) family income correlation (as contrasted to the logged income-to-needs ratio) is .508, significantly higher than the figure of .276 reported by Solon, Corcoran, Gordon, and Laren in their "A Longitudinal Analysis."

4. For the natural logarithm of total net worth (i.e., accumulated wealth minus debts), sibling correlations are .224 for all siblings, .239 for brothers, and .271 for sisters (Conley, "Sibling Correlations"). In this analysis, those with negative or zero net worth are set to zero on the log scale. This approach yields the highest sibling correlation between randomly selected adult siblings in the 2001 wave of the PSID. Correlations are not much different for other recent waves.

5. These probabilities come from table 4 in Solon, Corcoran, Gordon, and Laren, "A Longitudinal Analysis," 526.

6. The actual figure is a .48 probability that a randomly selected sibling of an individual who graduated from a four-year college will not have graduated. This result comes from analysis of the 2001 wave of the Panel of Income Dynamics (see Conley, "Sibling Correlations"). Daphne Kuo and Robert Hauser analyze the Occupational Changes in a Generation (OCG) survey data and find that for education, sibling differences (within-family variance components) for various age groups of black and white brothers range between 38 percent and 52 percent. (See Kuo and Hauser, "Trends in the Family Effects on the Education of Black and White Brothers," Sociology of Education 68 [1995]: 136-60.) In the PSID, I find a lower degree of sibling resemblance in education level (measured as a continuous variable from 1 to 17 years of schooling). The correlation coefficient for siblings in the 2001 wave is .429. For brothers it is .529, and for sisters it is .400. These correlations, when squared, imply a less robust within-family component than found by Kuo and Hauser. Likewise, one-quarter of sibling pairs in the Study of American Families diverge substantially in terms of the prestige of their jobs. ("Substantial" means the difference between a professional such as a lawyer or businessman, on the one hand, and a salesclerk or blue-collar worker on the other.) In the PSID, the sibling correlation in 2001 occupational prestige is only .225 for sisters, .302 for brothers, and .233 for all siblings (Conley, "Sibling Correlations").

7. These results come from analysis of the Study of American Families.

8. These data come from the GSS-SAF survey. People may be more likely to explain others' relative success with outside social factors than individual attributes in order to lessen the taste of the sour grapes.

9. It is generally said that siblings (other than identical twins) share 50 percent of their genes (the same degree of similarity as with their respective parents); however, this is only true if parents were randomly assigned to mate with each other. The reality is that there is a process called assortative mating where reproductive mates select each other based on traits that have some sort of genetic basis. This assortative mating can result in a lower than 50 percent genetic similarity among siblings if "opposites attract." More likely, however, it results in a greater than 50 percent similarity since parents are positively matched on attributes and thus are contributing some of the "same" genes to their offspring, reducing the variability and increasing the similarity between their children (and themselves). These issues will be discussed in greater detail in the sections that follow.

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Meet the Author

Dalton Conley is director of the Center for Advanced Social Science Research and professor of sociology and public policy at New York University. He is also adjunct professor of community medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. His essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Salon, among other publications. His previous books include Honky and Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America. Conley lives in New York City.

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