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Why the poverty cycle is harder to break than we like to think — and what can be done about it

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 27 2014 4:50 a.m. MDT

A study of 800 Baltimore students finds that those who are born poor stay poor and education has little to do with it.

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In 1982, Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander began tracking 790 Baltimore schoolchildren when they entered the first grade — and he followed them for the next 30 years of their lives.

Originally the study was called the "beginning school study," and was going to look carefully at the first grade and track the consequences over time. It was based on the assumption — one that dominated the literature — that schooling made the difference between rich and poor, between those who moved up the ladder and those who were left behind.

Somewhere along the way, Alexander had to drop that name and that premise because it didn't hold up. As Alexander's school kids moved into adulthood, overwhelmingly they ended up more or less where their parents were.

In the results of the 30-year study and in his new book based on it, "The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood," Alexander finds that things that were supposed to be great equalizers — like economic opportunity and education — weren't proving to be so equalizing.

Alexander talks to the Deseret News about education and poverty inside one of America's most beleaguered cities, why the poverty cycle is harder to break than we like to think — and what can be done about it.

Click the slideshow at the top of this page to see the best states for underprivileged children.

Deseret News: Your study has received a lot of attention because you found that white men without a college education had the best pick of what's left of Baltimore's high-paying blue-collar jobs. White men had 45 percent of industrial jobs, while African-American men with the same education had 15. Women had almost zero. What's contributing to that?

Alexander: In the ’40s and ’50s, during the World War II mobilization, Baltimore's economy was flourishing. Historians talk about the emergence of a blue-collar elite among the guys who worked in these trades, and they often had union protection. The kids we followed in our study — their parents and grandparents — benefitted from that boom economy, and they inherit that legacy.

Our interpretation as to why white men have better access is their family social networks going back to that time. Employment in lots of blue-collar work is through word of mouth — fathers, uncles. When we asked about part-time work, in high school one-fifth of white men had part-time jobs in industrial work and construction. They weren't plumbers and welders and auto mechanics yet, but they were working toward it. African-American men didn't have those jobs. Who you know can really make a difference as to who gets into them.

Deseret News: What about college-educated kids? Were they able to get ahead?

Alexander: Just 4 percent of kids from low-income families had earned a college degree by their late 20s. Middle-class kids had a 45 percent college graduation rate. That's a shocking tenfold difference.

Deseret News: All of these kids started out in first grade together — why did the low-income children not progress though college, while many middle-class ones did?

Alexander: Middle class children are advantaged in school all along the way — they perform better academically from the beginning. Middle class kids are more likely to be surrounded by books and magazines, they have educational toys and enrichment experiences.

Low-income kids started out first grade a half grade behind. They were often three grades behind by elementary school — at a third or fourth-grade level instead of fifth or sixth.

Deseret News: And yet, despite that, 30 percent of urban disadvantaged kids went to college, but only 4 percent made it through. What happened there?

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