From birth, practically, we’re told—again and again—that education is the golden ticket to the American dream. This is a meritocracy! Study diligently, put the work in and you, too, can get ahead, leapfrogging over your parents on the social strata. All you have to do is grab those bootstraps and pull. Hard.
For 25 years, a group of researchers from Johns Hopkins University tracked 800 mostly low-income schoolchildren from Baltimore from the start of first grade until they were just shy of 30 years old. In one of the very few projects to compare and contrast the lives of poor black and poor white kids, the researchers interviewed the youngsters, their parents and teachers, checking in with them regularly over the years. What the sociologists found was disheartening: The long-held truism that education trumps social class didn’t hold up. The children who were born poor tended to stay poor—no matter their race.
More often than not, one’s lot in life is determined by that of one’s parents. Almost half the kids surveyed remained in the same social class as their parents—and almost none of the kids, black or white, from low-income families graduated from college. Four percent of kids from poor homes finished college by age 28, compared with 45 percent of kids coming from more well-off backgrounds, even though the disadvantaged kids spoke of wanting to continue their educations. They, too, believed that education was the key to getting ahead.
“It’s a story of middle-class privilege,” says sociologist Karl Alexander, who, along with his colleagues Doris Entwistle and Linda Olson, reported their findings in a new book, The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth and the Transition to Adulthood.
“When the dust settles, not very many of these [inner city] kids are moving up in life, following the path that we tell them to follow,” Alexander says. “That’s sad and that’s sobering. The challenges are very real and there are many of them. There’s not just one thing getting in the way.”
And there are more things getting in the way for poor black kids compared with their poor white counterparts, according to Alexander. Low-income urban white neighborhoods tend to be more stable and less violent than urban black neighborhoods with an almost identical income profile, he says.
Black neighborhoods in Baltimore were more likely to be upended by public works projects; highway construction or new railroad lines cut a swath through once-stable communities, sending families scattering. Ninety percent of families that had to relocate because of public works projects were African American, according to Alexander. Working-class white kids were more likely to stay in the same neighborhood, fostering stability and extended social networks.
With deindustrialization, high-paying working-class jobs all but evaporated. But of those blue-collar jobs that remained, white men were much more likely to find work, according to Alexander. At age 28, the last year the former schoolkids were surveyed, 45 percent of the white men were working in those jobs, compared with 15 percent of black men. Among the students who dropped out, only 40 percent of black dropouts were working, compared with 89 percent of white dropouts. Low-income white men in the study had the lowest rate of college attendance or completion, but they also earned double what black men earned.
Why such a glaring difference?
“We see a very clear pattern of white privilege that probably extends back a few generations to Baltimore’s boom times [in the ’40s to ’50s],” Alexander says. “I personally think there’s a lot of racism in the mix, but we can’t quantify that.”
White working-class men benefited from knowing someone who knows someone, according to Alexander. They might get a job working in, say, their uncle’s auto shop. Or their dad works in the shipyards, so that gives them an in. It’s only natural for parents to look out for their kids, Alexander says, but in so doing, this further perpetuates white privilege.
“If you look at the kids that don’t go to college, white [working-class] guys have a tremendous advantage over everyone else,” Alexander says.
Low-income white women also benefit, he says. They are the ones who marry the white guy with the good blue-collar job. And though poor white women typically had the same rate of teen births as did poor black women, they were more likely to either marry or be in long-term partnerships, the study found.
Middle- and upper-class white men were much more likely to report using drugs, binge drinking and smoking, followed by lower-income white men—findings that contradict the stereotype of inner-city black men on drugs.
The study also found other interesting black-white disparities. Middle- and upper-class white men were much more likely to report using drugs, binge drinking and smoking, followed by lower-income white men—findings that contradict the stereotype of inner-city black men on drugs. These men were also more likely to have an arrest record, the survey found, while low-income black men were more likely to have a conviction: 49 percent compared with 41 percent of low-income white men. But serving time in prison didn’t hold white men back when it came to finding jobs.
Alexander, who spent most of his career at Johns Hopkins tracking these students, admits that he found the study results depressing. But he says the young adults today are anything but depressed. Most expressed a desire to continue their education. When asked what they considered being “successful” meant, many said that being alive and living a drug-free life and being able to be with their families was what mattered most to them.
“There’s a certain sentiment in this country that the only way you can be happy is to make a lot of money and have a high-status job,” Alexander says. “But on the ground, there are other things that are more important to these young people. And these are substantial values.”
Teresa Wiltz is senior staff writer at Stateline, the journalism outlet of the Pew Charitable Trusts.