Professor Karl Alexander discusses his nearly three decade study that exposes the structural barriers to escaping poverty in Baltimore
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: You also talk about rates of drug use and alcohol abuse as well. So talk about how those intersect, because we still have this war on drugs happening in this country and here in Baltimore. And so talk about the data you found and what the implications are for the war on drugs.
KARL ALEXANDER, JOHN DEWEY PROF. OF SOCIOLOGY, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIV.: Well, there again I think we have some surprising results, but they are what they are. And at age 28–well, with age 22 and 28 (those are our two after high school surveys) we asked about a variety of what are referred to as problem behaviors in the literature. So it’s drug use, it’s binge drinking, regular smoking. We also asked about chewing tobacco–and, actually, some of the kids chew tobacco, though it’s not of high prevalence–not many did. But what we find in response to the these questions is that whites of advantaged background and also as disadvantaged background have higher self-reported rates of drug use, any drug use, and it’s primarily marijuana. Whites have higher rates of hard drug use, which is some some substance other than marijuana. And whites have higher rates of binge drinking. And they also have higher rates of using chewing tobacco. And they’re much more likely to smoke regularly, which is not a healthy lifestyle choice, and it may not get them in trouble in the same way that the drinking and drugs do. The highest percentages in all those things are whites of favorable family background.
And they don’t get in trouble for doing those kinds of things. One of the reasons they’re not getting in trouble–.
NOOR: And you’re talking about in Baltimore City itself.
ALEXANDER: In Baltimore City.
NOOR: You’re not talking about the suburbs. You’re just talking about–.
ALEXANDER: No, we’re talking about kids who grew up in Baltimore. Some of them over time have moved out, but their background is all in the city. For the whites of more privileged background, much of what they’re doing along these lines is in the context of the college experience. And that doesn’t–we worry about that, I don’t want to make light of it, but it doesn’t typically spill over to get them in trouble.
NOOR: They’re doing it at a party or doing it in a dorm room.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, it’s parties, it’s hanging out with your friends, whatnot. And we also think that when we do get in trouble, their parents are better able to buffer the consequences of it. Thirty percent of these youngsters, African-American and white of advantaged background, tell us that they have been arrested at some point. But very few have a criminal conviction to follow them around.
NOOR: ‘Cause they can afford a good lawyer.
ALEXANDER: Or it never gets to that point. You know, they get–.
But it’s also the case that among the working-class background youth it’s the whites who have the highest rates of this drug use and binge drinking, substantially higher than African Americans, especially the heavy drug use. But what appears to be the case is that this doesn’t cause them the same kinds of problems that it causes their African-American counterparts, who–there are literatures–we didn’t talk to employers or even prospective employers, but we can use the broader literature to kind of form our sense-making, and it’s clear that them in employer surveys, many employers in the noncollege labor market don’t ask about a criminal record or do a criminal record check if they’re looking for and they’re considering hiring whites, white guys, but they do ask about criminal record or criminal record check when considering hiring African Americans. We find, when we look at the work experience, that having a criminal record is more of an impediment to finding employment and to keeping employment for African Americans than it is of whites of like background, even though the rates of these problem behaviors are high all across the board and higher for the whites than the African-Americans.
So the pattern there is really quite revealing, in that you have these–lots of young people along the way do things that middle-class [incompr.] society would not think is good for them and is not good for the rest of us. But doing those sorts of things can be more of a burden for some kind young people than for others, and it seems as though African-American men in particular do suffer disproportionately the consequences in terms of diminished work opportunities. And so that’s a big problem. It’s big problem for them, and it’s a big problem for all of us.
NOOR: And I want to get back to that, but you also kind of monitored how families developed throughout this period, not just how the families started. But talk about what you found about how the families and partnerships and relationships developed for the different groups you looked at.
ALEXANDER: Sure. Yeah, there’s a literature on the transition to adulthood. That’s how it’s referred to. And you can think of that in all sorts of ways, but it’s a common approach that looks at particular markers. So if you’ve ever been married–having been married or been in a stable live-in partnership is kind of a sign of adulthood–maybe not mature adulthood, but adulthood. Having lived independently of your parents is–likewise, it’s kind of setting off on your own, and adults are expected to do that. Having become a parent is another one.
So we asked our study participants about whether they’ve experienced all these things at various points in their life. And at age 28, what we do is tally them up and see which kinds of people have attained more of these milestones. And so what we find is that this traditional pathway into adulthood is more typical of whites than it is of African Americans and of SES background whites in particular, which is to say, being married or having a stable live-in partnership, becoming a parent, being employed full-time at some point, having done that, and living apart from your parents, we call that the kind of done-all path into adulthood. And half of lower SES background young people have done, and about 60 percent of lower SES white women have done that. So that’s the predominant tendency.
What’s of particular interest there, I think, is that children of more favorable background circumstances growing up are much less likely to have done all these things. And what the–in particular are–the things that they have not done in particular are become parents and marry. And what seems most likely there–and again, this ties in the broader literatures–is that what they’re doing is deferring family formation in order to stay the course through school–these are the kids that are going to go to college and maybe graduate school–and to wait until they’ve established themselves in a career, because–before they start a family. And so there are these very sharp differences across social lines in that.
In terms of the children of poorer family circumstances growing up, there’s also a large difference by race in marrying and/or partnering. We actually combine those together and called him a family union.
NOOR: And living together, essentially.
ALEXANDER: Living together or being married, but a stable live-in partnership of at least three months’ duration. African-American women are much less likely to be in a stable union than are white women. And that’s especially true among those of more disadvantaged background. What we find is that among lower-income African-American women, a third of them at age 28 had never married or been in a live-in partnership. That’s true of just 8 percent of white women of similar background. So the majority of women, both African-American and white, had experienced this family ties of marriage or partnership, but a third of African-American women have not. And of that group, three-quarters are parents. So they’re parenting without a partner. For the 8 percent of whites who’ve not been in a family union, only 40 percent are parents.
So what’s somewhat distinctive–and I shouldn’t say somewhat; it is distinctive, it does stand out–is that young African-American women are getting on in their adult lives alone, more of them, in terms of marriage in partnership. Now, many of them are living with extended family and so forth, but we’re talking about–and so that’s a whole ‘nother layer. But in terms of having a spouse or a stable partnership, many more African-American women of low-income background are finding themselves going it alone as young adults, and many more of them are going alone with the responsibilities of caring for children. And there is a large literature on the feminization of poverty, and that’s what it amounts to, single parents who don’t have good employment prospects, and most of whom have not been very successful in school, and so they don’t have the even high school or college credentials to help smooth the way.
NOOR: And if they’re single black women, especially low-income, they have the lowest job employment prospects.
ALEXANDER: They have the lowest employment prospects and the biggest burdens. And so that’s a real challenge. So what’s happening here that we see is that white and African-American women of like background–I’m talking about, again, those who started out in more challenging family conditions when they were growing up–those two groups are both very likely to be teen parents, for example, 60-70 percent. But the difference is that the white women of lower-income background are teen parenting with a spouse or a partner, whereas African-American women are teen parenting alone.
Now, where that becomes–I’m not going to–I don’t know whether that’s a social problem or not. That brings in–you have to go beyond the particulars of what the statistics are to think through the implications of that. But one thing is very clear, is that these women who begin life disadvantaged are also disadvantaged as young adults when they’re trying to parent alone, because their earnings are so much lower. And what we find is that if you look at the individual earnings, the personal earnings of these white women and African-American women who are relegated to the low–who find themselves in these low-wage pink collar sectors of employment, the clerical and sales, their personal earnings are about $22,000 annually (it’s 2006 dollars), much lower than those of men, African-American or white men of like background. But since more of the white women have a spouse or a live-in partner, the family earnings for white women increase appreciably–they more than double. It’s, like, $44,000 family earnings when you just combine–it’s a simple exercise: you combine their earnings with the earnings of their spouse or partner. And it goes from $22,000 to $48,000 on average. African-American women without a spouse or a partner are dependent on their personal earnings.
And so [Isabel Sawhill (?)], who’s a very eminent economist, we have a quote from her in the book that says, women have another route to upward mobility beyond doing well in school, and that’s marrying well. And it’s very real and it’s very tangible and it makes a big difference in their lives to see this many women kind of struggling financially on their own.
Now, it wasn’t the purpose of this study to understand why there were these differences in marriage rates, but the patterns we see are very similar to what you see nationally. And these statistics I’m giving you are applied to our Baltimore children, but they also parallel what you see nationally. So it’s not a great surprise, but it is a sobering realization that so many of these women experience such hardship as young adults.
But we know these there are other details that are relevant to why young people form unions. And so we know in the experiences of the African-American men of like background, their employment prospects are poor, by and large–not all; there are always exceptions–their employment prospects are poor. They get in trouble with the law. Now, white guys of like background get in trouble with the law also, but these African-American guys are suffering an employment penalty because of that. It makes it harder for them to find steady work and lucrative work. And so the women in these circumstances are reluctant to wait to have children until they can find a marriage partner or a live-in partner who can be counted on to be a good provider and to be a stable presence in the children’s lives.
I don’t say that from our research, but one of my colleagues at Hopkins, Kathryn Edin, has written a book that probes the issue of why so many low-income women do not wait to be married to have children. And this is not peculiar to African-Americans. Her study talks to Latina women and white women and African-American women. And of one voice they say they need to establish themselves and make sure that they’re provided for and their children are provided for before they take the chance of a risky pairing with a guy that they might not be able to count on. So these women say that their children are the most important things in their lives. They help validate them. And there’s a sense of urgency about of getting on with their family. But the reality of it is that doing this creates practical problems. And they’re very severe practical problems.
So what happens, so what we see is that white women of low-income background have low personal earnings, as do African-American women, but their family earnings are much higher, and so their overall condition is much more favorable than their African-American women counterparts, who are relying on their own abilities to provide for themselves and their children. It’s a vastly different kind of experience.
Having said all that–and, boy, I’ve really gone on at great length–I also want to step back and be careful not to paint with too broad a brush, because it’s too easy to think in stereotype ways about low-income African-American women or low-income African-American men in the context of the big city. Most women, African-American women, are not in these circumstances. Most are not. And African-American and white women are more successful in school than African-American and white men. So there are gendered advantages as well as disadvantages.
NOOR: So they’re more successful in school, but less successful–.
ALEXANDER: But less successful in the world of work. So it’s important to be balanced. It sounds like–I don’t want this to be just a gloom-and-doom story like there’s no–it’s just a horrible experience for everyone. That’s certainly not the case.
NOOR: Well, on that topic–.
ALEXANDER: Well, let me just conclude the thought. So we have, for example, I just was talking the other day to one of our study participants–I had reason to touch base with her–an African-American woman who grew up in very difficult family circumstances. She and her brother moved out of their house and lived with their grandparents during the high school years to escape the chaos of what they were experiencing around them, and she now has a PhD degree and is an education. So there are lots of kids, very resilient, very resourceful, they work hard, and they want to do the right thing, and they manage to make a go of it. But those are the exceptions, not the rule.
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