Summarizing 25 years of researching the lives of 790 Baltimore kids

Three sociologists followed 790 Baltimore children over 25 years and published a book of their findings in 2014. Here is a quick summary of their results:

“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.”

Among the most striking findings:

  • Almost none of the children from low-income families made it through college. Of the children from low-income families, only 4 percent had a college degree at age 28, compared to 45 percent of the children from higher-income backgrounds. “That’s a shocking tenfold difference across social lines,” Alexander said.
  • Among those who did not attend college, white men from low-income backgrounds found the best-paying jobs. Although they had the lowest rate of college attendance and completion, white men from low-income backgrounds found high-paying jobs in what remained of Baltimore’s industrial economy. At age 28, 45 percent of them were working in construction trades and industrial crafts, compared with 15 percent of black men from similar backgrounds and virtually no women. In those trades, whites earned, on average, more than twice what blacks made. Those well-paying blue collar jobs are not as abundant as during the years after World War II, but they still exist, and a large issue today is who gets them: Among high school dropouts, at age 22, 89 percent of white dropouts were working compared with 40 percent of black dropouts.
  • White women from low-income backgrounds benefit financially from marriage and stable live-in partnerships. Though both white and black women who grew up in lower-income households earned less than white men, when you consider household income, white women reached parity with white men — because they were married to them. Black women not only had low earnings, they were less likely than whites to be in stable family unions and so were less likely to benefit from a spouse’s earnings. White and black women from low-income households also had similar teen birth rates, but white women more often had a spouse or partner, a relationship that helped mitigate the challenges. “It is access to good paying work that perpetuates the privilege of working class white men over working class black men,” Alexander said. “By partnering with these men, white working class women share in that privilege.”
  • Better-off white men were most likely to abuse drugs. Better-off white men had the highest self-reported rates of drug use, binge drinking, and chronic smoking, followed in each instance by white men of disadvantaged families; in addition, all these men reported high levels of arrest. At age 28, 41 percent of white men — and 49 percent of black men — from low-income backgrounds had a criminal conviction, but the white employment rate was much higher. The reason, Alexander says, is that blacks don’t have the social networks whites do to help them find jobs despite these roadblocks.

My quick interpretation: race and class still matter. White children could access jobs through social networks (a point also made in Deidre Royster’s Race and the Invisible Hand study of vocational students in Baltimore) and could still get jobs even with deviant behavior. White women partner with these white men and do better as a result. Starting in families with higher incomes leads to a higher likelihood of going to college. That these two social factors continue to matter should not be surprising – look at the life outcomes and changes by race/ethnicity and income for all American adults – but their presence can get drowned out.

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