Time and the Melting Pot

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African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and non-Hispanic whites each have different ways of spending time. For example, blacks spend the most time on religious activities, whites spend the most time on housework, and Asians spend the most time on education.

America is often called a nation of immigrants and a "melting pot" where disparate cultures blend into one. This may have been true for European immigrants who arrived before World War I. But is it still true for today's immigrants, who are more likely to come from Asia and Latin America? We are now a nation of old and new immigrants who come from western and non-western cultures. Are these diverse cultures blending in, or has a multicultural mix replaced the melting pot?

One way to measure the differences between ethnic groups is by measuring the differences in their lifestyles. Hints of these differences should show up in how each group spends time. For example, time-use specialists often refer to France, Germany, and other Western European countries as "eating and sleeping cultures" because Europeans spend much more time than Americans or Asians on these two activities. Perhaps the descendants of European immigrants 80 or 100 years ago cut short their mealtimes and bedtimes to adapt to the brisker American pace.

In the same way, Asian and Latin cultures are noted for the strength of their family ties. Will Americans of Asian and Latin ancestry, then, continue their traditional cultural emphasis on family time, once they are in the land of multiple TVs and fast-food restaurants? Have African Americans continued their traditional commitment to church communities and extended family networks, even after decades of migration to urban areas?

Time-diary evidence from the Americans' Use of Time Project can shed light on some of these questions. Of course, most Americans of European ancestry have been assimilated into American culture, and few pure-bred French or German respondents show up in this cross-sectional survey. It is possible, however, to contrast the differences in time use between African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans from the majority of non-Hispanic white Americans.

These survey data are not sensitive enough to capture the specific lifestyles of individual nationality groups, because the three minority groups together represent less than 30 percent of survey respondents. These three groups also fail to distinguish dozens of distinctive nationality groups: Japanese and Pakistanis are both counted as Asians, for example, and Argentineans and Puerto Ricans are lumped together as Hispanic. Finally, the survey is limited to English-speaking adults, eliminating about 1 in 12 Americans who tell the Census Bureau that they do not speak English "very well." Non-English speakers may provide America's purest examples of how different cultural traditions are expressed in time use, but they are not included here.

It is important to be conscious of the different demands that class and family make on different racial and ethnic groups. For example, a larger percentage of Asian immigrants may make their living as entrepreneurs, and this activity often requires extremely long work hours. Like turn-of-the-century European immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, Hispanic newcomers are overwhelmingly in working-class jobs. And African-American families are noted for a long history of having both spouses employed, as well as for the growing number of female-headed families since the early 1970s. These differences often shape time use in ways that are not easily understood. They may force people to spend their time doing things they would not do if they had a choice.

Despite these limitations, it is useful to look at broad differences in time use for the four major ethnic classifications. The data show several important similarities that apply across all groups. But they also reveal differences that could indicate the relative importance of work, family, and personal fulfillment to each group.

Broad Ethnic Differences Participants of all four ethnic groups in the Americans' Use of Time Survey completed the same daily time diary, showing the number of minutes they spent doing various things for one day. Between 1994 and 1996, telephone interviewers asked more than 8,000 adults across the U.S. to describe chronologically all their activities for the previous 24-hour day. These open-ended diary accounts were then converted into 96 quantitative categories of activity, which in turn were re-coded into 20 broader categories under the 5 major time headings of paid work, family care, personal care, free time, and travel. The 1994-96 results can be compared with previous editions of the survey taken in 1965, 1975, and 1985.

Paid work: the diary data show relatively small work hour differences by ethnic group. On average, the 1994-96 data show Hispanics spending the least time at work, with a weekly average of 22 hours; and Asian Americans spending slightly more, at 23.4 hours. The 23-hour work times may seem low because the samples combine full-time workers with part-time workers, homemakers, and retirees.

Family care: in the latest diary report, the nearly 20 hours American adults averaged on the three aspects of family care (housework, child care, and shopping) represented almost as much time as the 23 hours spent on paid work. The surprise here is that the three minority groups spend an average of 2 to 4 hours less a week on housecleaning, cooking, and other home chores than the non-Hispanic white population does.

Hispanic and Asian households are more likely than black or non-Hispanic white families to contain children. And relative to non-Hispanic whites and blacks, Hispanics do spend a little more time caring for children. Asians, however, spend less than average time on child care. Asians also spend up to an hour less time shopping than do non-Hispanic whites, Hispanics, or blacks. In terms of total family care then, non-Hispanic whites and Hispanics spend more than 20 hours, blacks 18 hours, and Asians 16.6 hours.

Personal care: while ethnic differences in time spent on these activities are not large, blacks do spend less time eating (5.5 hours per week both at home and in restaurants) than Asians (8.7 hours) and whites (8.1 hours). On the other hand, blacks spend 9.4 hours on grooming and other bodily care, compared with 8.0 hours for whites. Sleep times are within 2 hours a week across all four groups.

Free time: while the overall differences are minimal across the four groups, each group has distinct ways of spending free time. For example, Asians and Hispanics spend considerably more time on adult education than do non-Hispanic whites or blacks, and Asians also spend more time reading. For Asians, these higher reading and education figures are offset by lower times spent in religious and organizational activity, visiting, watching TV, and family and other home communication.

African Americans emerge as distinct in their greater use of free time for religious activities, watching TV, stereo and radio listening, active sports, and talking (both on the phone and at home). These high figures are offset by their lower times spent reading and going out to events, such as sports and movies.

In comparison with blacks and Asians, the leisure activities of non-Hispanic whites and Hispanics generally fall somewhere in the middle. Non-Hispanic whites do spend more time than the other groups on crafts and hobbies, a category that includes recreational computer use. Hispanics visit with relatives and friends slightly more than average.

Travel: only minimal differences exist between the ethnic groups when it comes to time spent traveling away from home.

This Americans' Use of Time survey points out several surprising facts about time use and ethnicity. First, mainstream white Americans spend more time than the minority groups on housework. This hardly conforms to the image of an affluent white population freed from these menial tasks by armadas of electronic appliances. Instead, it could reflect whites' higher levels of homeownership. Second, the close family ties of Hispanics are reflected in the greater amounts of time they devote to child care, visiting, and family meal times. Yet Hispanics do not spend more time than average on church activities or in family communication. Third, the family life of Asian Americans seems less robust than other groups in terms of time use. But Asians' commitment to learning and non-material activities may be evident in their lower shopping and TV times, as well as their higher times spent on education, reading, and hobbies.

The above differences between non-Hispanic whites and the three minority groups are based on relatively small sample sizes that could exaggerate or create differences across these groups. But data for the black respondents have been collected consistently since 1965, making possible more conclusive findings on the differences between blacks and whites aged 18 to 64. Some of these differences are so consistent across time that they transcend the limitations of the small sample sizes involved.

The relative position of working-age blacks and whites in American society is one of the longest-running debates in American sociology. On one side are those who believe that the positions of blacks and whites are converging. "There could be no doubt that the races were moving rapidly toward equality and desegregation by 1962," wrote Gunnar Myrdal, in his 1962 update of An American Dilemma. "The dynamic social forces creating inequality will, I predict, be practically eliminated." Six years later, the opposite view was summarized by the Kerner Commission: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white--separate and unequal."

While much has changed in the three decades since the Kerner Commission report was published, the socioeconomic gap between blacks and whites persists. One might expect that black and white time use would be converging in the amount of time spent on paid work activities, because affirmative action programs have given blacks greater access to higher education. The economy's expanding white-collar and service sectors, which tend to employ a large percentage of African Americans, should also contribute to a convergence of work and commuting time between the races.

The historical importance of religion in black America, reflecting the central role of the church in the segregated South, suggests that blacks would center more of their lives around the church and religious activities than other ethnic groups. Also, media studies have shown widely different television viewing habits among blacks and whites. A 1992 survey by BBDO Worldwide found almost 50 percent more TV viewing in African-American households than in non-black households.

The Americans' Use of Time Survey offers a way to check these hypotheses against records of real-time behavior. It shows that African Americans spend a little more time than whites commuting to work, but that the differences in the amount of time the two groups spend on work itself are neither large nor consistent across time. The commuting difference may exist because blacks live farther from their place of work, or because they are more likely to rely on public transportation.

The main family-care activity that shows consistent racial differences is the amount of time spent doing housework: African Americans spend 9 hours a week, compared with 13.5 hours for whites. This is surprising because in the National Survey of Families and Households, black respondents in dual-earner families consistently estimated they did 20 percent more housework than white respondents. A large gap between self-reported estimates and diary records could indicate a conflict between attitudes and behavior. Differences in the times the two groups spend on child care and shopping vary too much from decade to decade to detect any clear pattern.

There are also differences in personal care. African Americans spend slightly more time than whites on personal grooming, but less time eating meals. Sleep differences, however, are neither large nor consistent.

The black respondents in the Use of Time Survey have two to three more hours of free time each week than whites do. This is not a significant difference, given the sample sizes involved. However, within that free time, there are two activities that we expected blacks would spend notably more time on than whites: religious activities and television viewing.

In each survey since 1965, African Americans spend almost twice as much time going to church as whites do, and four to five more hours a week watching television. Blacks also listen more to radio and recordings as a primary activity, and they spend more time in family and phone communication. These findings are remarkably stable over the four decades of the survey. African Americans also spend slightly less time than whites on reading, hobbies, and going to social or cultural events, such as fairs and museums. Differences in free time spent on education and sports are neither significant nor consistent.

Many of these activities on which African Americans spend less time are done away from home, while TV viewing is done mainly at home. This does not mean that blacks spend more time than whites do at home, however. Travel times are roughly equivalent for whites and blacks.

How much are these differences simply a function of the differences between blacks and whites in education levels, ages, occupations, and family structures? To answer this question, we performed multiple regression analyses to control the data for the demographic variables described above. This exercise shows that the greater free time shown for African Americans is not statistically significant, but that all of the other differences remain significant. Compared with whites of equivalent backgrounds, African Americans watch more television, spend more time at church, do less housework, and do more child care.

The big question remains: are the lifestyles of African Americans and whites diverging or converging? If they are converging, it could be strong evidence that the social positions of blacks and whites are becoming more equal. One of the most consistent findings of the Americans' Use of Time Survey is that the time use of women and men has become much more similar since 1965, as women have entered the labor force and gained access to many areas previously denied them. How well did the War on Poverty, affirmative action, and other measures open these same doors for blacks?

The evidence for the races is much more mixed and inconsistent than it is for the sexes. Some signs point to convergence: the greater amount of time African Americans spend on child care and visiting has diminished since 1965, for example, and the lower amounts of time they spend participating in organizational activities and hobbies has increased. But there are also activities for which the racial gaps are getting wider. Since 1965, the time-use gap between blacks and whites has widened for listening to the stereo or radio, going to church, and doing homework.

It is important in comparing the races to distinguish important differences within the black community. Some analysts have suggested that the answer to the convergence-divergence debate depends on what group of blacks one is examining. The black middle class may have kept pace or gained on their white counterparts, while working-class blacks have fallen further behind over the last three decades.

Indeed, the diary data show important class differences within the black population that largely mirror those found among whites. For example, college-educated blacks watch less TV, do less housework, eat out more, and read more than do blacks who have not been to college. They also have less free time than blacks who have not been to college, which is also true among the white majority.

At the same time, most of these differences continue to hold among whites and blacks at equivalent levels of educational attainment. That is, college-educated blacks watch about 5 hours more TV than college-educated whites do, which is similar to the amount of TV watched by non-college-educated groups of both races. In several important respects, then, the black-white differences in time use have not converged. After three decades of effort to bring about equality between the races, black and white time use remains separate.

Taking It Further A complete description of the 1965, 1975, and 1985 Americans' Use of Time Surveys, along with a discussion of how time use has changed for the 96 quantified categories of activity, is published in Time for Life by John Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey (1997: Penn State University Press, $24.95), available from the American Demographics catalog: telephone (800) 828-1133.

About the authors John Robinson and Bart Landry are professors of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, where Ronica Rooks is a graduate student.

Ethnic Differences In Time Use (number of hours per week spent on various activities, 1994-96)

[DATA TABLE, see print edition]

Source: Americans' Use of Time Survey, University of Maryland

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