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

PovertyConservationBookPersonal IncomeDavid SimonAnnie E. Casey Foundation

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.

You say that your book is in part a response to David Simon's fictionalized depictions of Baltimore. What do you say when people ask, "Oh, did you see 'The Wire,' or 'The Corner'?"

I am not a big fan of "The Wire" or "The Corner," but especially "The Corner," as it puts forth a badly distorted picture of poor black communities as little more than open-air drug markets filled with callous, uncaring people. It is a horrid image and panders to our worst stereotypes of the black poor. We take that on in Chapter 1 of the book.

Through census data we show that the West Baltimore neighborhood showcased in "The Corner" is, in fact, much more diverse than you would ever imagine from the book's characterization. We also show much the same in the experience of our study participants. One of our original 20 schools was in that same section of Baltimore, and what we find is that the young people who grew up there followed many different paths. Indeed, some had attended college, were working steadily and living comfortably from their earnings in the licit workforce, none of which would be expected from "The Corner."

And too, they are not all African-American. As you know, there are concentrations of both black and white poverty on Baltimore's west side, and we make a huge mistake in associating "urban disadvantage" with "black disadvantage." Genuine urban ethnographies afford a more balanced view of low-income neighborhoods, where most of the residents are ... trying to live by the rules and stay out of trouble. "The Corner" is not an authentic urban ethnography, and it does a disservice to the poor and needy in presenting itself as though it were.

Some people argue that government anti-poverty programs have achieved nothing. Let's unpack that, as it pertains to the cohort you studied. Was there really an adequate safety net for kids born poor or low-income in the late 1970s?

As Americans we like to think of the United States as the land of opportunity, as exceptional. But to be exceptional is not always a good thing. We are, and have been for many years, exceptional in that as a country we have the weakest social safety net for needy children and their families of any advanced industrial economy and by far the highest rates of criminal incarceration. And one suspects that the first has some relevance for the second.

Studies comparing the U.S. with other countries find that we also lag behind in prospects for achieving upward mobility. That is, in the U.S., a child's adult employment prospects and income are more dependent on his or her parents' educational levels and income than in most other countries of the industrialized world. The imagery of our book title is intended to convey that idea: it is the "long shadow of family background."

It is really quite shocking, and flies in the face of who we like to think we are as a country. Still, those patterns of family advantage and disadvantage are hard to escape in the success narratives I've sketched. Children of middle-class background have the advantage in school and white men of working-class background have the advantage in the non-college labor market. For me, it's not so much a matter of begrudging them their successes — who can fault parents for wanting to help their children? Instead, I would want, and I suspect what we as a caring society would want, is to have prospects for achieving those successes more broadly available.

A lot of people found the conclusion of your book depressing: Children who are born poor are likely to stay that way. But what made the difference for the 4 percent — the low-income kids who managed to get a college degree?

It is hard to generalize, but we know that poor children are capable of doing well in school and that many do, in fact, excel. Those that do typically benefit from strong family support. It is hard to overstate the importance of family.

Most parents, poor and non-poor, want the same things for their children. The non-poor, though, have more of the resources needed to follow through on their good intentions. In the early years, it is stressing the importance of academics and modeling good habits — reading especially — along with the development of good language skills. Later, it might be help navigating the college search. Also, knowing how to engage constructively with teachers and other school personnel can make a big difference.

Poor children fall behind academically during the summer, when they are cut off from the school's resources and enrichment experiences. We've seen this in our Baltimore research and the same pattern is seen nationally as well. But poor parents who make sure their children get to the library during the summer, encourage good reading habits and take advantage of strong summer programs are making a tangible difference in their children's life prospects.

Did you get any insight into single-parent households as a predictor of outcomes for kids?

Father absence and single-parenting are hard to ignore. But in our book, single-parenting does not stand out as distinctively disadvantaging.

Still, it is hard to separate the influence of things that tend to cluster together — single-parent households tend to be low-income and often the single parent has a low level of schooling. That profile doesn't augur well for finding steady work with good pay, and many of those families absolutely struggle, as do their children. We even have a phrase for it: the feminization of poverty.

Stability in family life probably matters more for children's healthy development than who is co-resident with the child. That is — a stable, single-parent household may be a better environment for children than a history of short term, serial pairings.

What do you hope Baltimoreans will take away from your long study?

That "family counts," and it counts for a great deal — initially in children's launch at the start of first grade and then continuing well into their lives as young adults. If we are sincere in wanting to do more to help the urban disadvantaged realize the American dream, the big challenge is in thinking creatively and ambitiously about how best to deploy public resources in the service of that goal.

And I don't mean just dollars. The resources located at the interior of family life include advantageous social networks and an environment that helps children arrive at school well prepared. Family also determines where children live and, for most, the school they attend. Family, neighborhood and school are the three institutional settings that children experience up close and personal in their daily lives. They are where child development happens.

Many of Baltimore's children grow up in poor households, live in high-poverty communities and attend schools that enroll mainly low-income children like themselves. Family poverty, neighborhood poverty and a high poverty school — separately each is a risk factor, in the short term, for struggle at school and in the longer term for trying to establish a toehold in an economy that increasingly has little to offer those without a college degree. But too many poor children experience these conditions in combination, not separately, which means they are triply disadvantaged. It is a profile that does not augur well and mere Band-Aids will not be enough to counteract them.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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PovertyConservationBookPersonal IncomeDavid SimonAnnie E. Casey Foundation