'Family counts, and it counts for a great deal'

More insights on Baltimore children, poverty and life success from Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander

One of the most sobering facts from Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander's long, deep look at the lives of nearly 800 Baltimore children born in the 1970s was this: Only 4 percent of boys and girls 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, with 45 percent getting a diploma.

Several readers of my June column on Alexander's extensive research found his conclusions wholly depressing: Nearly half of all the children, who were first-graders in 1982, ended up at the same socioeconomic level as their parents. By the time they were young adults, only 33 of them had moved from low-income families to the high-income bracket. Compared to their better-off peers, children from poverty had too many obstacles and not enough social connections to move up the economic ladder.

I went back to Alexander for more insights from his life's work, published by the Russell Sage Foundation as a book ("The Long Shadow," with Doris Entwisle and Linda Olson) upon Alexander's retirement as chairman of the sociology department at the Johns Hopkins University.

In my first column on your work, I had to briefly summarize a lot of it. What are the key findings from your research that people should pay attention to?

The children whose life progress we monitored for a quarter-century were born in the late '70s and were age 28 when we last spoke with them. Their Baltimore was the Baltimore that experienced what the Annie E. Casey Foundation in 2010 referred to as a "perfect storm" of "crippling trends and tragic events — the dramatic loss of manufacturing jobs and tax base, the ruinous riots of 1967 and 1968; the exodus of first white, then African-American middle-class families; the sequential epidemics of heroin, crack cocaine and HIV; the intensified crime and gang activity that fed and feasted off the drug trade; and the activities of slumlords, property flippers and predatory lenders. The end result has been an ever-deepening cycle of disinvestment and decline."

Within that context, it won't surprise that many of our study participants had a difficult time of it. Many, but not all.

Please talk about those who had some success in life and how they achieved it.

Two paths to success come through quite clearly in the experience of this group of typical children who came of age at a very difficult time in the city's history.

Children of middle-class background do well as young adults because they did well at school. Their parents hold solid middle-class jobs, most of them attended college, and their children have advantages all along the way.

At the start of first grade, they averaged a half-grade level above disadvantaged children in reading comprehension and by the end of fifth grade — the end of elementary school — the gap was three grade levels. A poor child at that point might be reading at a third- or fourth-grade level, and is expected to keep pace with a middle-class child reading above grade level.

Other things follow: the poor child is much more likely to be held back one or more grades or assigned to special education. When they get to middle school, and then later high school, they are more likely to be put into low-level and remedial courses off the college track. Their rates of high school dropout are high and their rates of college attendance are low. One can see the roots of this in their family and neighborhood disadvantage all the way back to first grade.

Children of the middle class, on the other hand, more often enter college well prepared and with the means to follow what we call the "fast track" into and through college. They enroll immediately after high school, attend full time and continuously, and often they live away from home as residential students, which strengthens integration into campus life. Most of the disadvantaged who attend college have none of these advantages.

It is a process of cumulative advantage and disadvantage that shadows children all the way from childhood into their adult years.

What was the other path to success you found in the group you studied?

It's a less familiar narrative, but also vivid in the group's life experience. It also is long-term and cumulative. This is an account of working-class white privilege, and working-class white men are the beneficiaries.

These men had lower levels of completed schooling than their African-American counterparts, reported higher levels of binge drinking, marijuana use and hard drug use, and had comparable records of arrest and conviction. And yet they were much more successful in finding steady, high-pay, blue-collar work, and in a perhaps surprising place: the remnants of Baltimore's old industrial economy.

At age 28, 45 percent of them were working in the skilled industrial and construction crafts, as against 15 percent of African-American men of like background. And in that employment sector, white earnings were twice African-American earnings.

Even in high school, a fifth of whites had part-time and summer jobs in those fields. They weren't plumbers, electricians and welders at that point. But they were helping their fathers, uncles, older brothers and neighbors — ties that would open doors for them later. At age 22, when we asked about finding work, many more whites than African-Americans said "through family and friends." African-Americans more often said, "On their own."

Because hiring in the non-college workforce often is by referral and word of mouth, who you know makes a vast difference. When young African-American men suffer blocked opportunities, white men stand ready to take those jobs. As a result, for them, the lack of a high school degree or having a police record is less of an impediment to finding, and holding onto, steady, high-wage work. We see that at every point of comparison: in high school, at age 22 and at age 28.

We believe the roots of this pattern extend at least as far back as World War II and the years after, when African-Americans working on the docks, in the steel mills and on the auto and aircraft assembly lines were relegated to the low-wage, low-skill dirty work and substantially excluded from trade union apprenticeship programs. Racial discrimination in housing also served to keep black and white Baltimore apart, excluding African-Americans from potentially useful social networks. Today those barriers are not as formal or explicit, but they still serve to keep much of white and black Baltimore apart.

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