The Long Shadow

Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander is pictured in his research office with his new book, "The Long Shadow" (also authored by Doris Entwisle and Linda Olson). The book is based on research from 790 individuals whom he has studied for twenty-five years. (Photo by Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun / June 2, 2014)

In the American dream a child can rise above a low-income background to go to college and then a high-paying job, but research by a Johns Hopkins University sociologist over a quarter of a century shows it rarely happens in Baltimore.

Karl Alexander, with two other researchers, followed nearly 800 children from varied socioeconomic backgrounds from the time they entered first grade in a Baltimore City public school in fall 1982 until they turned 28 or 29 years old.

They found just 4 percent of students from low-income families in the study group attained a college degree. But students from a middle class or affluent background were 10 times as likely to graduate from a four-year college.

Alexander said his work shows "the powerful influence of family background in children's lives. Experiences in family life and neighborhood can forecast children's life paths over the work place and college."

While all parents wanted the best for their children, he said, more affluent parents were able to give their children opportunities — as simple as taking them to the library and having the time to check homework — that some lower income families could not.

The results of Alexander's life's work is being published this month in a book: "The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth and the Transition to Adulthood." The work echoes similar recent research that finds increasing disparity between social classes in the nation.

Jason Botel, director of the nonprofit MarylandCAN, argues the city needs more schools, particularly high schools, that can help low-income students beat the odds.

"While Dr. Alexander's findings might be correct for Baltimore, we know that there are organizations in other parts of the country that are operating schools that are succeeding in leading children from low-income families — especially children of color — to reach much higher levels of academic success than the norm for their communities," Botel said.

Among children from working class families who did not attend college, Alexander's research found white men were more likely to succeed than black men. Forty-five percent of white men ended up in skilled jobs including construction trades or other blue collar, industrial jobs in the city. Black men had much less chance of getting those jobs, and when they did, they earned far less.

White blue collar workers also were able to leverage their parents' social connections to get a job. Trade unions and even neighborhood bars offered young white men social connections to land a job.

By comparison, the study found black men got blue collar jobs by themselves and not through family or neighborhood connections.

The research showed that young women from white and black working class backgrounds had similar likelihoods of teen pregnancy, but white women were more likely to have a stable relationship with a partner or husband, and therefore a higher income.

A surprising finding for the researchers was that white men from advantaged backgrounds had the highest rates of self reported drug use other than marijuana, as well as binge drinking and smoking. The second highest group to report drug use was white working class men.

Alexander thought the research project he began when he was 36 would last a few years. He had just become a full professor in sociology at Hopkins when he and a colleague, Doris Entwisle, decided to combine their interests — hers on early childhood and his on the transition between high school and college — to look at how children acclimate to first grade.

The collaborators picked 800 students and their families. "We were particularly keen to have a strong sample to be the foundation for the project," he said.

The study involved regular interviews with parents, teachers and the participants. Each child was interviewed twice in intervening years after college or high school. They closed the study in 2006 after tracking participants who had migrated across town or were as far away as the North Pole on a scientific exploration.

Alexander, whose own daughter was entering first grade the same year the study began, plans to retire in July. Entwisle died last year of cancer, he said, but the book had been completed by the time of her death.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com