Reposted from Johns Hopkins Magazine:
Karl Alexander has spent more time in prisons than most professors. For 25 years, the Johns Hopkins University sociologist and his Johns Hopkins colleague Doris Entwisle followed the lives of 790 children growing up in a variety of Baltimore neighborhoods. The researchers interviewed their subjects almost every year while they were in school and every few years after they became adults. Early on, the participants could usually be found in school or at home. But as they aged, some of them began to land in prison. So Alexander, Entwisle, and their colleagues followed them there.
Alexander and his colleagues recorded every story. They collected a mountain of data: each subject’s work history, how far he or she had advanced in school, their past drug use, number and ages of children and other family members, and relationship status. The sociologists combined this information with data from earlier interviews of both study subjects and their parents, along with profiles of the neighborhoods where their subjects grew up, school report cards, and family backgrounds. Pulling these strands together, the researchers wove a rich tapestry from the lives of children growing up in Baltimore from the early 1980s through the mid-2000s.
Many of the middle-class children in the study progressed through life’s stages as expected: school, college, work, marriage, parenthood. But for poorer children, the picture was largely bleak. In their book The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood (Russell Sage Foundation, 2014), co-authors Alexander, Entwisle, and Linda Olson, an instructor in the School of Education, combine an explication of 25 years of data with powerful anecdotes—stories of murdered friends and siblings, absent fathers, mothers too addicted to drugs or alcohol to provide basic care, dreams deferred. The researchers show how, at each step on the path to adulthood, neighborhood and family and school conspire to pass down advantage and disadvantage from generation to generation. Contrary to the popular American narrative that everyone has equal access to opportunity as long as he or she is willing to work hard, the reality revealed by the study is grim. Education and hard work lift people from the inner city out of poverty only in exceptional cases. The vast majority born poor are almost certain to stay that way.