When Economics Divides Siblings

Emiliano Villa and his family in their living room, gathered around the tree shortly before opening gifts on Christmas Day in 2002. Counterclockwise from left: Dalia Pena, Guadalupe Valois, Rafael Villa, Gabriela Solorzano, Jose Luis Pena, Azalia Villa, Jazmin Pena and Emiliano Villa.

Emiliano Villa and his family in their living room, gathered around the tree shortly before opening gifts on Christmas Day in 2002. Counterclockwise from left: Dalia Pena, Guadalupe Valois, Rafael Villa, Gabriela Solorzano, Jose Luis Pena, Azalia Villa, Jazmin Pena and Emiliano Villa. (Courtesy of Azucena Rasilla)

My sister, Azucena Rasilla, is 16 years older than I am. But the difference between us goes way beyond years.

Our family was a lot better off, back when Azucena was my age. “We were able to get a house. Each of us had a room. Our parents bought us stuff for Christmas and birthdays,” Azucena recalls.

By the time I got old enough to remember things like birthday presents, the recession hit. My family’s home-renovation business took a nosedive, and it hasn’t recovered, which is tough, because our family, like so many others, expected that we’d do better over time. Instead, moneywise, things have gotten worse — to the point that there’s a class disparity between my own siblings and me.

After their business started to struggle, my parents had no choice but to scale down. “They moved to a small place. They went back to you guys sharing rooms. Cut down on expenses,” Azucena said.

Back when my sister had an after-school job, she kept all the money for herself. I have to use my paycheck to help with groceries and rent.

My mom, Gabriela Solorzano, explained our family’s financial dip. She told me in Spanish, “We went from making $2,000 or $3,000 a week to making $300 or $400 a week, sometimes nothing. The whole business went under.”

So unlike my sister, when I start college next year, I’ll be on my own covering tuition.

“This causes a lot of tension within families,” said Dalton Conley, a sociology professor at Princeton University who studies economic inequality between siblings.

“The expectation or fairy tale we tell ourselves is that inequality stops at the front doorstep, when you wipe your feet on the welcome mat. But, really, inequality starts at home,” Conley said.

When siblings end up with different economic situations at home, Conley said, the downward shift can be reflected in net worth differences later on: “One sibling has to contribute to family of origin, the other did not. The other sibling gets a jump-start on accumulating savings for a down payment on a house.”

In better times, Emiliano Villa's family poses for a portrait around Christmas, 1999. Counterclockwise from left: Dalia Pena, Jose Luis Pena, Rafael Villa, Guadalupe Valois, Gabriela Solorzano, Jazmin Pena, Emiliano Villa, and Azucena Rasilla. Photo courtesy of Villa Family.
In better times, Emiliano Villa’s family poses for a portrait around Christmas, 1999.
Counterclockwise from left: Dalia Pena, Jose Luis Pena, Rafael Villa, Guadalupe Valois, Gabriela Solorzano, Jazmin Pena, Emiliano Villa and Azucena Rasilla. (Photo courtesy of the Villa family)

That’s pretty much what happened to Evie Ladin. She remembers when her older sister was accepted into her dream school.

“My father was a single parent. He didn’t feel like we were in a position to send her. She went to a less expensive school, which she didn’t like, and dropped out,” Ladin said.

Two years later, Ladin graduated. “My father just felt a little more equipped to be able to send me to Brown University,” she said.

And that one difference between them has had lingering effects. “I definitely had that opportunity that she didn’t have. And I know that she has more stresses related to finances than I do,” Ladin said.

Despite those stresses, in the big picture, Ladin’s experience lines up with the American Dream: A family’s financial situation improves over time. But according to a 2016 study from the Urban Institute, millennials are less likely than older generations to think they’re better off than their parents.

In our Oakland home, we keep an antique hutch full of fine china, tea sets, wine glasses and vases. I’ve grown up looking at this fancy tableware from our family’s past.

“I bought these at different points. Can’t buy stuff like this anymore,” my mom said to me.

But I don’t resent my older sister, or my parents. I’m too busy working hard to make sure someday, we’ll be able to afford that stuff again.

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