“The Long Shadow”: The fortification of socio-economic class

A mere 4 percent of the first-graders Alexander and Entwisle had classified as the “urban disadvantaged” had by the end of the study completed the college degree that’s become more valuable than ever in the modern economy. A related reality: Just 33 of 314 had left the low-income socioeconomic status of their parents for the middle class by age 28.

A 25 year long study named The Beginning School Study out of John Hopkins University explores “disadvantaged” populations in Baltimore. The researchers observed and interviewed first graders into their adult lives over the course of twenty-five years. The evidence shows there is little upward mobility.


I am troubled by a comment made in the article: The families and neighborhoods these children were born into cast a heavy influence over the rest of their lives, from how they fared in the first grade to what they became as grownups. 

In my (Yiola) opinion, the perspective of family and community as the influence and determinant of health and success is short sighted. How a society and government collectively and resourcefully (or not) engage with families and neighbourhoods is by far the greater influence as is illustrated when the journalist explains:

The findings, meanwhile, accumulated in dozens of journal articles. Alexander and Entwisle helped establish that young children make valuable subjects, that their first-grade foundations predict their later success, that more privileged families are better able to leverage the promise of education. Also, disadvantaged children often fall even further back over the summer, without the aid of activities and summer camps.

These findings are not about the influence of family or neighbourhood; they seem more the result of the influence of quality of education, resources, opportunities that are available to populations, all of which surround socio-economic class. The structures and systemic values and institutions in place are not equal between those of high and low economic status: for example, inner city schools do not have the same resources as the schools in affluent areas – this is not the fault of the families nor the neighbourhoods nor the teachers.

We like to think that education is an equalizer — that through it, children may receive the tools to become entrepreneurs when their parents were unemployed, lawyers when their single moms had 10th-grade educations. But Alexander and Entwisle kept coming back to one data point: the 4 percent of disadvantaged children who earned college degrees by age 28.

“We hold that out to them as what they should work toward,” Alexander says. Yet in their data, education did not appear to provide a dependable path to stable jobs and good incomes for the worst off.  

My question then become  WHAT CAN BE DONE WITHIN EDUCATION and POLICY to allow education to be a dependable pathway?

It is not only a question of class but race certainly factors into the discussion as the researchers also discovered the following:

Alexander and Entwisle found one exception: Low-income white boys attained some of the lowest levels of education. But they earned the highest incomes among the urban disadvantaged.

They were able, Alexander and Entwisle realized, to tap into what remains of the good blue-collar jobs in Baltimore. These are the skilled crafts, the union gigs, jobs in trades traditionally passed from one generation to the next and historically withheld from blacks. These children did not inherit college expectations. But they inherited job networks. And these are the two paths to success in the Beginning School Study.

The findings confirm what we have known all along, that is classism and racism are an integral and embedded piece of our policies and existence. The idea that families and neighbourhoods are the influence is not accurate. Families and neighbourhoods are the circumstances caused because of the structures/policies/beliefs of society.

I cannot help but think of the book “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” a biography that Clare recommended some time ago here on the blog. Robert Peace grew up much like the urban youth in Baltimore. He was a genius and thrived in school so much so that he found himself a Yale graduate. However, he could not escape the drug-dealing life and was ultimately murdered in the neighbourhood where he grew up. Moving upward in socio-class is not only a matter of doing well in school or acquiring money (although these elements too are extremely difficult today). Education and money are not indicators of moving outside one’s class. There seems to be fortress like walls around different classes of our given society and only with extreme leaps and bounds and circumstances can one truly cross the borders.

The research methodology of this study is fascinating. 25 years of observation and interviews, of relationship building and reporting. The work of the researchers is exciting and so very interesting.

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