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Professor Karl Alexander discusses his nearly three decade study that exposes the structural barriers to escaping poverty in Baltimore

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KARL ALEXANDER, JOHN DEWEY PROF. OF SOCIOLOGY, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIV.: Forty percent high school dropout rate overall. We all would want better than that for our children, much better. One of the interesting things, because there’s a lot of discussion of high school drop out is that that’s the end of the story. But 60 percent of the study youngsters who left school without high school degrees eventually get some kind of high school certification, and most of them do the GED degree, which is an alternative certification, but by the standards of federal government accounting that’s high school completion. Ten percent who dropped out return to high school and finish with regular diplomas. So what started out as a 40 percent high school degree at age 28 is down to 25 percent, which is still really very high, but it’s not 40 percent. So these kids who leave school, many of them realize that this wasn’t a very good decision and they regret it and they try to do something about it. When we talked at age 28 to everyone, 80 percent of the total panel said that they intended to get additional education, 80 percent at age 28. It was 85 percent among high school dropouts. We call them permanent high school dropouts because by age 28 they didn’t have a GED or a high school diploma. Eighty-five percent said that they were going to–they intended to get more education. Now, probably most of them won’t, but it really is quite impressive to see how the success ethos that school is the way to get ahead has permeated through even a very disadvantaged population of urban youth. So these kids want to succeed in life, they want to do well, and they understand, many of them, that school can be the path out, up and out. But there are just so many barriers that stand in the way that for many of them, they’re not able to see it through.

JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: And there is a racial disparity in high school dropouts between white and black, who found work even though they were high school dropouts.

ALEXANDER: Yes, there are some interesting–there is a racial disparity, but it’s not the one that you might anticipate. So one of the interesting opportunities that we had here, because we did start out with a very diverse sample within the framework of the Baltimore City Public Schools system is that we have a large presence of low-income white children. And there’s a vast literature on the problems of the urban poor and concentrated poverty in our big cities, but you very rarely see low-income whites as part of that picture, as part of that story. And that’s regrettable, because there are low-income whites in Baltimore and there are low-income white neighborhoods in Baltimore. There have been all along, and there still are. But very rarely do you see them brought into the conversation about the challenges of the urban poor and whatnot.

So we were fortunate in being able to include a large group of these youngsters in our study, and we monitored their experiences over time as well. And what we find is that the lower-income whites, white children, white males specifically, of disadvantaged family background have the highest dropout rate, non-completion. At age 28, their average years of schooling is about 10.2. So the typical lower-income white male growing up is a permanent high school dropout in terms of the way–our coverage of it.

Now, the others–and the comparisons we make are lower income against higher income, or lower socioeconomic standing against higher socioeconomic standing growing up, African American and white, and male and female, men and women. And when I say that the white males of disadvantaged family background have the lowest high school completion rate, had the highest high school dropout rate, I’m not saying that the others are going gangbusters. In fact, for the other three groups, they’re all eleven-point-something years. So for all four–lower-income white men, white women, African-American men, and African-American women–at age 28, the typical youngster out of that group, all four of those groups, has not finished high school. But white men, if you look at the numbers, are least successful of all. That’s one point of interest.

NOOR: Success in terms of employment or education?

ALEXANDER: Yeah, they’re least successful in terms of using the educational system as the vehicle for moving up in life, ’cause they’ve got the lowest levels of formal schooling on average. On average. There are always exceptions.

But then to turn the page, to go where you were starting to address, they are most successful in the world work–so least successful educationally and most successful in the world of work, and across a whole host of particulars when you look at it: they’re more likely to have worked full-time; they find jobs fast, more quickly, and they’re ready to move on to the next job; their earnings are higher; and they have a very distinctive pattern of successful vocational development–from adolescence on, their employment experience is much better than that of African-American men of like background, and much better also than women of like background, both African-American and white. So these white guys don’t use schooling as the vehicle for doing well in life, but they do have employment opportunities that aren’t as readily available to the others who grew up in the same kind of circumstances.

NOOR: And what accounts for that?

ALEXANDER: Well, I can tell you why they’re doing better. I can’t–what accounts for it is a bigger story, and we can get into that. But what we find, which is really tremendously striking is that at age 28, 45 percent of these guys are working in the high-skill, high-wage jobs in manufacturing and in the construction trades, 45 percent are working as either electricians, plumbers, welders, things of that sort. But the kinds of jobs that used to be the backbone of the old Baltimore industrial economy and everyone says that they’re gone with deindustrialization–deindustrialization has been real in the city, and it’s really wreaked havoc on the local economy, but if you look around, people are still building buildings, they’re still doing a road repairs to the highways. If you need to upgrade your electricity at home, you call an electrician, or if you need a new hot water heater installed, you call a plumber. So there are people who are still doing this kind of work and working in these trades. And what we see is that it’s white men of lower-income background who have the greatest access to these kinds of jobs, 45 percent of white men. Fifteen percent of African-American men are working in this same sector, the way we classify it. So 15 percent is–so the white advantage, just in terms of penetrating into this sector of employment, is threefold advantage. But on top of that, the white men who are working in the sector, their earnings are twice that of African-American men, roughly $44,000 against–.

NOOR: Full-time employment.

ALEXANDER: –$22,000.

It’s whatever they are. This wasn’t full-time necessarily. We didn’t screen on that. But on average, it’s $44,000 against $22,000.

NOOR: So more than double.

ALEXANDER: A little bit more than double. And that’s at age 28 in terms of 2006, 2007 dollars. So these guys not only have better access to this high-skill, high-wage work in the blue-collar economy, but they’re in the–their positions that they find themselves in are much more–they pay a lot more than the positions African-Americans of like background find themselves in.

This is actually longstanding in Baltimore. We see it in the experiences of our study group, but there was a report that was published in the early ’60s that looked at the earnings using Social Security data–so it’s really not self-reported; actually federal government data–on the earnings of the automobile mechanic graduates to Baltimore vocational and technical high schools back in the day. Actually, it was Mergenthaler and Carver. They were segregated at the time. And the white graduates, the white auto mechanics graduates four or five years afterwards were making twice what the African-American graduates were making in the same program, auto mechanics. So this is a longstanding pattern.

And so there is another–there’s a second option for how to establish yourself in life and achieve a reasonably comfortable standard of living.

NOOR: To move up to the middle class.

ALEXANDER: Yeah. Well, not–it depends on–I don’t know how you want to classify them. So these are still blue-collar workers. And some people would say the middle class, this has to be white-collar, but in terms of earnings, they certainly would get into the middle class. But the one path that everyone talks about and is very real and is very important is doing well in school is a vehicle for moving up. But I’ve already said, only 4 percent of the disadvantaged children, of those who started out in disadvantaged circumstances as children, only 4 percent of those have baccalaureate degrees. So they’re not moving up that way. This second path is to achieve–is to find your way to good steady and lucrative work in the blue-collar labor force, and white men have the advantage.

And I say men because it is particularly men. There aren’t many women, white or are African-American, who are working in these kinds of jobs. When you look at the sex composition of the employments of our study youngsters, there is a high-degree of sex segregation, and it’s very traditional. The women are concentrated, African-American and white, in the traditional pink-collar sectors.

NOOR: What does that mean?

ALEXANDER: That’s service and clerical work–with some sales, but service and clerical. Service and clerical employment makes up 60-70 percent of lower-income women’s–in terms of family background.

NOOR: Which will pay less than–.

ALEXANDER: And they pay less. Right. They pay less. So women and men substantially are finding themselves at different places in the labor market, and men are in more lucrative positions than women.

And that actually–it’s interesting. We see the same thing for those who were from more favorable family backgrounds, and most of whom attended college, and many had completed college, but it’s at the upper end of the employment hierarchy. So those women are concentrated in the professional fields. And you could name them as well as I, probably, ’cause they are gendered. It’s teaching, nursing, social work, the helping professions. Men of like background are more likely to be in executive or managerial positions or to be in the high-level technical positions of today’s postindustrial economy. And those jobs pay more than the helping-profession jobs that women access. So we see men being advantaged in terms of employment opportunities–.

NOOR: And that also is where the job growth is, it seems like, to some degree, in Baltimore.

ALEXANDER: Oh, it is, yeah, locally. I mean, so Baltimore’s economy has been contracting, but there are sectors of the economy that are actually flourishing. And so the economists talk about the FIRE industries. So it’s finance, insurance, and real estate. And those tend to be male dominated.

NOOR: White male dominated.

ALEXANDER: White male dominated, yeah. And then the service sectors also, with growth, and especially in health care service and so forth.

So what we describe in the book is this pattern where white men of modest background are advantaged in terms of their employment experience over everybody else. Why that happens is a larger question. And there’s a historical backdrop to it. There are–in the long shadow, we think there really are two–it’s a story about two kinds of family privilege. And the flipside of family privilege is family disadvantage. But there’s middle-class family privilege in terms of helping children do well in school. And that’s what we see. Children of parents who themselves were college-educated, who have middle-class jobs and whatnot, their children are doing just fine, thank you.

NOOR: And they’re probably not working 70, 80 hours a week or have multiple jobs.

ALEXANDER: Well, they probably are not. I don’t know. Some professionals could be working lots of hours, speaking personally. But it’s not a hardship, because we’re heavily invested in what we do.

But this pattern of differential success in school, it’s not particular to what we see in Baltimore. It’s we see it nationally as well that children from advantaged families are more successful in terms of family income, parental levels of education, and so forth. So that’s one success narrative.

This other success narrative involves blue-collar attainment, and where–parents can be helpful there, too, but in a not quite as obvious way, ’cause we know about middle-class parents. Middle-class parents can do all kinds of things to help their children do well in school. They buy expensive educational toys, they do enrichment experiences, and so forth. Blue-colar parents, it’s not so obvious, until you step back and think about it, how they can to help their children be successful. And the way it plays out in the experiences of our study group is that blue-collar parents can help open doors to good steady employment through social networks. When we asked at age 22 our study participants how they found the work, white men of modest background much more often said through family and friends, and African-Americans much more often said through themselves. And if you’re on your own and you’re not well connected, that makes it–that’s not an easy thing to do, to find your way to a good opportunity.

NOOR: So you’re describing white privilege.

ALEXANDER: It is white privilege, working-class white privilege specifically.

Another facet of that is we have–the white high school dropouts at age 22, 80 percent of them were working. African-American high–males–I’m talking about men–African-American male high school dropouts at age 22, 40 percent of them were working. So whites just have these employment advantages all along the way. And what we find is, if you look at those groups specifically, between age 22 at age 28, 5 percent of the whites acquire a criminal record along the way. I think it’s 45 percent of the African-Americans acquire a criminal record along the way. So they have limited job opportunities, and they’re trying to figure out a way to get by, and they get in trouble.


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Karl L. Alexander is Chair and John Dewey Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology, Johns Hopkins University. He has been at Hopkins since 1972. Alexander previously chaired the department from 1985 to 1993 and from 2006 to 2009, is past President of the Southern Sociological Society, past Chair of the Sociology of Education Section of the American Sociological Association, was editor of the journal Sociology of Education from 2003 - 2006, and he currently directs a federally funded Predoctoral Training Program in Education Research. Since 1982 he and colleague Doris Entwisle have been directing the Baltimore-based Beginning School Study (BSS). The BSS is a long-term study of youth development with a particular interest in the lasting imprint of early home and school experiences. It has been tracking the life progress of a panel of 800 Baltimore youngsters since first grade in 20 Baltimore city public schools.