A Hopkins sociologist busts an American belief

Study of 800 Baltimoreans found those born poor stayed poor

Thirty-five years ago, when the number of homeless people in Baltimore was noticeably on the rise, several reasons were given: mental illness and deinstitutionalization, the city's relatively high unemployment rate, drug addiction, family dysfunction and evictions, the lack of affordable housing and the problem of ex-offenders being released from prison without a welcoming destination.

At the same time, more and more people, including children, were showing up for lunch and dinner at a growing number of soup kitchens.

Esther Reaves, the longtime director of Manna House, knew almost all of the hungry families who came to her soup kitchen in midtown Baltimore. She knew why they turned to Manna House for food.

"They're poor," she said, declaring the obvious, to be sure, but a fact commonly overlooked or considered simplistic.

Because of the work she did, Reaves understood something about poverty — it's a lot harder to escape than most Americans have ever been willing to believe.

"Poor" might be where you start out in life, but it's not supposed to be where you end up. It's not supposed to be a permanent condition in the land of opportunity, but something you leave in the dust, through determination and hard work.

Those who start in the middle class or above have a hard time accepting that poverty could have such a grasp. If you're born poor and stay there, you must be doing something wrong. We think people remain in poverty because of the welfare state.

Or because they're lazy.

And while that's infuriatingly true in some cases, it's not in most.

Poverty is complicated. The cycle is hard to break.

A recently published Johns Hopkins study bears that out, and then some. It was a long-term project of sociologist Karl Alexander and two other researchers. They tracked nearly 800 Baltimoreans from first grade in 1982 in West Baltimore to their late 20s.

I was interested in the final report for a couple of reasons:

First, its impressive length and scope; Alexander and his colleague, Doris Entwisle, devoted their careers to the project, conducting interviews of 790 children and their relatives over more than two decades. Alexander retires this summer as chair of the Hopkins sociology department; Entwisle died last year of cancer. (Linda Olson, a Hopkins instructor and researcher in the School of Education, is the third author of the report, published this month by the Russell Sage Foundation as a book titled "The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood.")

I was also interested because the "kids" in the study entered first grade about the same time that I started tracking homelessness and hunger in Baltimore, in the early 1980s. That was the time of the widely acclaimed Baltimore renaissance, but it was also a period when the city experienced significant yearly population loss and a surge in homelessness. Long lines at soup kitchens were commonplace.

Overriding — and compounding — the local problems was a national recession (the Reagan recession). After that came a period of recovery and growth ("Morning in America") and the start of three decades of steadily growing income and wealth disparity.

So, here's what Alexander and his team found: Kids who were born poor in Baltimore stayed poor.

Only 4 percent of the children from low-income families ended up with a college degree by the time they were 28. Kids from a middle-class or affluent background did 10 times better than that, with 45 percent getting a diploma.

Nearly half of the 1982 first-graders ended up at the same socioeconomic level as their parents.

By the time they were young adults, only 33 children had moved from low-income families to the high-income bracket. That doesn't mean they didn't want to, Alexander told me. It means they faced too many obstacles.

He and colleagues found some racial distinctions among those trying to "rise above their raisin'."

For instance, white men from low-income families had a lot more success than their black peers in landing good blue-collar jobs in construction and what remains of the region's industry. And whites in those fields made, on average, more than twice what their black counterparts did.

"The implication is where you start in life is where you end up in life," Alexander said. "It's very sobering to see how this all unfolds."

Alexander's conclusion — if you're born poor, you're likely to stay that way — probably strikes most people as obvious.

But, in fact, we love to hear a good story about someone beating the odds, maybe even getting up to where the air is rare, the Xanadu of the super-rich.

We like to think that rising above poverty — at least doing better than your parents did — is the rule, not the exception.

Alexander's conclusion busts that classic American belief. "A family's resources and the doors they open cast a long shadow over children's life trajectories," he says. "This view is at odds with the popular ethos that we are makers of our own fortune."

drodricks@baltsun.com

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