Johns Hopkins University sociologist Karl Alexander made a splash earlier this summer with the disturbing findings of his study of nearly 800 youngsters in Baltimore, following them from first-grade through their late 20s.
The study, undertaken with two co-authors, found that the children’s fate was pretty much sealed at birth – determined by family strength and their parents’ income.
“A family’s resources and the doors they open cast a long shadow over children’s life trajectories,” Alexander has said of his work, the basis for a book, The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood. “This view is at odds with the popular ethos that we are makers of our own fortune.”
Just 33 children (about 4% of the total) moved from the low-income to high-income bracket.
A similarly small fraction of the low-income families had college degrees by the time they turned 28, according to a National Public Radio piece on the research aired today.
The segment profiles two subjects of the study – Monica Jaundoo and John Houser – who talk about their efforts to beat the odds, growing up in Baltimore in the 1980s.
“They Turn into Skeletons”
Houser, a graphic designer and freelance writer who lives in Canton, attributed his success to hard-working parents and to the shock value of what he saw around him, as people he knew fell to drugs and desperation.
“You see what happens. You see friends’ mothers start ‘tricking,’ or you see how they change, like, in a few months. They turn into skeletons. They turn into slaves. It’s horrifying,” he told reporter Juana Summers.
Alexander’s study tried to sort out the factors influencing why the children’s lives turned out the way they did.
Racial disparities are among the striking findings in the study, Summers said, noting the researchers found that “more affluent white men in the study reported the highest frequency of drug abuse and binge drinking, yet they still had the most upward mobility.”
According to sociologist Alexander, “The extent of what we refer to as problem behavior is greatest among whites and less so among African-Americans. Whites of advantaged background had the highest percentages who did all three of those things – that was binge drinking, any drug use and heavy drug use.”