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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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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Out of the 790 Baltimore children you surveyed in 1982, 33 moved from low-income to high-income brackets. What was different about them? ‘Cause they must have stuck in your head. We know you can’t disclose their names or any identifying facts or features about them, but they must have–their stories must have stuck with you.

KARL ALEXANDER, JOHN DEWEY PROF. OF SOCIOLOGY, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIV.: Well, let me say, just to clarify, that’s not income. The way we classify their families and themselves as young adults, it’s socioeconomic standing, which is a combination of income, occupational status, and level of education. So it’s all three of those things combined. And that movement up, what we do is we classify families as low, medium, and high in terms of their socioeconomic standing, and we do that for the parents and we do it for the children. And then we cross-classify the two so we can see how many children went from low to high, how many children went from high to low, and so forth.

And so, yes, we find that just 33 of the children who grew up in lower socioeconomic status families made it into the higher realm as adults. The number of children who started out in favorable family circumstances and dropped to the lowest level, there’s just nine of them. So there is upward mobility, there’s downward mobility, but that’s relatively infrequent, so that there’s 38 children–. What was the number? I’m going to have to go through–.

NOOR: Thirty-three.

ALEXANDER: Thirty-three. Yeah. Thank you. [incompr.] all these numbers [incompr.] We’ll be back. I’ve got a script sheet that tells me who they are. Here’s the mobility.

So there’s children who moved up from the lowest, from the bottom category to the highest of our classification. That was 9.5 percent, just under 10 percent of the total of lower SES children. The ones who dropped down from high to low was just–6.3 percent of the group that started out high fell to the lowest category. Most of the mobility up and down is just one level rather than two. The highest rates of mobility go from the bottom category to the third one, and so we’re skipping over the middle. But most of the movement is one level up or down. But that 9.5 percent moving from low to high is contrasted with 41 percent who started low and stayed low, so when there’s a fourfold difference in the likelihood of moving up from lower origins to the high destinations. The six and a half percent who started out high and dropped low, that’s against 50 percent who started high and state high. So that’s more than–almost a tenfold difference.

So the prospects–so that actually does a good job of kind of capturing the whole experience globally over the span of years, ’cause it anchors children in where they started in life in terms of their family conditions and then compares it to where they wound up in life in terms of their own conditions as young adults. And the predominant tendency is to stay where you started. Some people move up, some people drop down, but a predominant tendency is to stay where you started. And that’s what really the “long shadow” imagery is intended to convey. Economists that look at these mobility patterns, they call it stickiness at the extreme. You know, you’re kind of stuck where you started out.

How did the people move up who did make it out? Those are so–the stories are so different one from the other it’s hard to generalize. But some did it by being successful in school, you know, the way your parents probably told you to do it and the way my parents taught me to do it, you know, stay the course, study hard, come to school prepared, and do what your teachers tell you, and you’ll be successful. Some of them did that. I mentioned the one woman who has a PhD now who started out in very difficult circumstances. Well, she moved up by–you know, in what–the old-fashioned way of doing well in school. We have others who have moved up by being entrepreneurial, doing well without the advantages of a college degree. I can think of one fellow who had a very challenging life growing up, and he now runs his own business and he’s doing very well. And he didn’t finish college, didn’t go to college.

So the paths to moving up–now, there are different ways you can do this, and many of our study participants have been quite resourceful and energetic and entrepreneurial and have managed to rise above. But, again, the predominant tendency, the pattern, is to not move up. If you start out in a disadvantaged family, the likelihood is that you’re going to be in a disadvantaged family yourself as a young adult. So there’s movement up, but there’s also stability, and the stability in terms of your position in the stratification, hierarchy–that’s sociology; that’s the way I think of it, the stratification system. Stability is the norm. Most people stay where they start. And the ones who break out and are successful, we applaud them, and it’s great to see that, but you’d like to have it from more than just 9.5 percent. You’d like it to be, I don’t know, 100 percent if you could. But short of that, you know, something. You’d like to see greater opportunities for children to get ahead in life who start out kind of behind.

NOOR: So I think we’re almost out of time, but I wanted to ask you one last question. So, recently Paul Ryan, he said that inner-city men are lazy; and that’s why they’re not successful, that’s why they don’t have jobs: they don’t want to get jobs. And what has happened since you started this study is that you’ve had under the Reagan administration a massive amount of cuts in social spending, cuts in social security and welfare in the Clinton years, and the escalation of the war on drugs, mass incarceration. What is your response to Paul Ryan? What are your thoughts?

ALEXANDER: Well, hi, Paul.

NOOR: And this is also a common idea throughout society.

ALEXANDER: Yeah, no, it is a common idea. It’s widely held. And I think it’s just–it’s certainly too superficial, and it might be just out-and-out wrong. Certainly as a blanket statement, broadly applicable, it’s certainly wrong. We certainly don’t see this in the experiences of our group. They try to get ahead by getting additional education, and there are just obstacles that stand in their way, so they’re unsuccessful. They try to find jobs, but they don’t have family members or neighbors or ins with the boss that can help them get into the door.

NOOR: Well, do you mean–well, many low-income white men do, but low-income black–.

ALEXANDER: Yeah, I’m speaking about African-Americans specifically, that they just don’t–their families and their social networks that their families are tied in with–.

NOOR: And to be clear, Paul Ryan says he wasn’t speaking about African Americans. He was talking about all inner-city people.

ALEXANDER: Oh. Well, you see I just slipped into the same–. Well, he’s wrong about all inner-city people. I think, as a social social concern, I think much attention is focused on the limited opportunities for African Americans. But it’s absolutely wrong about all inner-city people, ’cause one of the things that our book establishes is that the whites of lower background have are much more successful in terms of finding stable and well-playing paying employment, good-paying employment, much more successful than African-American counterparts and the women of either–you know, black and white.

But what I want to say, Jaisal, let me just comment a bit more on the African-American experience, because it’s clear that they, African-American men in particular, lag behind, and it’s challenging for them. And then their challenges kind of trickle down to affect women who are trying to establish lives and take care of families, many of them on their own. The national literature says that African-American men are more likely to apply for jobs than are white men when they need them and are eager to find employment. That much is clear.

It’s also clear that the stain of a criminal justice record is a greater impediment for African-American men [than] for white men. We see that in our research, but it’s also seen nationally.

NOOR: And if you–sorry–if you could, maintain on the eye contact with me.

ALEXANDER: Oh. I’m sorry.

NOOR: Or just look in my direction.

ALEXANDER: Okay. So I think there’s a relevant history here that we haven’t even touched upon. But it has to do with the way opportunities open up in the kind of blue-collar workforce. And it goes back to the World War II industrial era, industrial boom. So what it wasn’t too long ago, I think, that Baltimore was the economic engine or powerhouse of the Maryland economy. It’s easy to forget, but–because we’ve been mired in these difficult times for decades now, but in the World War II era, when during the height of the war mobilization–Beth Steel, for example, was the largest steel mill in the world, with 35,000 workers, and now it’s being sold off for scrap. That was a time–some of the literature refers to this as the moment of the blue-collar elite, where you could find steady work and high-paying work on the assembly lines, in the steel mills, on the docks. So there was a lot of good, steady work to be found.

But Baltimore was highly segregated during that time, and most of that good, steady work was available to blue-collar whites and not blue-collar African Americans, who were relegated to the least-promising kind of employment. They did all the dirty work and the nonskilled laboring work. And so we’re talking three generations back. We’re talking about the–our study, youngsters’ grandparents.

Also there were restrictive residential covenants. So the white working-class in Baltimore were substantially isolated in residential enclaves. If you know the area locally, the first thing you think about when you–what comes to mind when you think about whites in Baltimore are the upscale neighborhoods that are exclusive–the Roland Parks, the Guilfords, the Homelands. But in point of fact, there are working-class, white working-class neighborhoods scattered throughout the city that also are long-standing and very much insulated by residential segregation–Curtis Bay, Brooklyn, and there’s over on the west side (near the B&O Railroad Museum) Pigtown, Sandtown, low-income working-class, white working-class neighborhoods that are insulated in terms of being racially segregated.

So you put these two things together in a historic perspective, you’ve got really a booming industry of high-skill, high-pay blue-collar work and whites having access, greater access to that kind of employment, and you have segregated residential neighborhoods, where people, blacks and whites, don’t mix and mingle. They didn’t back then, and they don’t do much better today. White parents who have social networks through those in the workplace or in the neighborhood, a lot of employment in the non-college workforce is word-of-mouth, you know, recommendation from a friend or a cousin or a neighbor that can help open doors. And working-class whites are much better able to provide those opportunities for their children than are African Americans, than are working-class African-American parents.

So what happens is, in the historic context, you see–in the book, we quote a sociologist by the name of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. He’s a sociologist at Duke University. And here’s the quote. It says, the racial practices and mechanisms that have kept blacks subordinated have changed from overtly and eminently racist to covert and indirectly racist.

So I think this history is where the overtly and eminently racist practices come into play that excluded African-Americans from high-wage work, blue-collar work, and that excluded them from neighborhoods where they could develop social contacts that would be helpful to their children. That’s 50 years ago. But if you fast-forward to today, you still have these same isolated neighborhoods, and you still have word-of-mouth hiring for these kinds of–you know, on the construction sites and whatnot. And so white parents are better able to help their children get this kind of work. And they do it. They do it.

I’m going to kind of in a very roundabout way get back to your Paul Ryan quote. The white guys are working hard and doing rather well, inner-city white guys working hard and doing rather well. Because they have these network advantages through their parents, relatives, and friends, they can get into this kind of work. And they grew up with it. You know, if your father was an auto mechanic, you’re helping him. If he’s an electrician, a small-jobber, you’re on the job with him. So you get worked in that way. African Americans by and large don’t have those opportunities and that access.

But the African Americans that we know through our project are also highly motivated and willing to work hard. But they have more impediments, maybe more barriers in the way that keep them from finding, realizing the same kinds of success that the lower income background whites realize. And so I’m very dismissive of that kind of attitude about inner-city young people, African-American or white or/and white. It just doesn’t ring true. It doesn’t resonate with what we’ve seen in the experiences of our children growing up, and it doesn’t resonate in terms of what I know of the broader literature that speaks to these very same kinds of issues.


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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.