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A long view suggests kids end up where they start

A long view suggests kids end up where they start

Picture of Ryan White
Kids playing basketball on a Baltimore street.
Kids playing basketball on a Baltimore street.

For journalists accustomed to juggling three or four story deadlines in any given week, it’s hard not to read news of researchers spending three decades on a single longitudinal study as an otherworldly display of focus and persistence.

John Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander and his colleagues, Doris Entwisle and Linda Olson, have done just that, publishing a book earlier this summer that draws insights plucked from three decades spent diligently tracking nearly 800 Baltimore inner-city kids, from first grade to age 28 or 29. The study complete, Alexander is now set to retire.

As the title, “The Long Shadow,” suggests, the researchers found that the resources and strength of a child’s family tended to exert a powerful influence over a child’s future. Poor kids tended to become poor adults, with surprisingly few kids jumping up or down the socioeconomic ladder in Baltimore. Mostly, kids grew up only to arrive where they started.

The finding has major implications for health, too, since ample research has long shown that income and education levels – one’s socioeconomic status – are strongly linked to all sorts of health measures, including disease susceptibility and lifespan. The entrenched poverty and lack of social mobility that Alexander’s team found in Baltimore raises questions about the prospects for success in the battle to reduce class- and race-based health disparities.

The figures are stark: Out of the 790 Baltimore kids that researchers began following in 1982, only 33 moved from a low-income to a higher-income bracket. In addition,19 kids dropped from higher to lower socioeconomic brackets as they aged. Among the kids from lower socioeconomic status (SES) families, only 4 percent had a college degree by age 28, compared with 45 percent of higher-income kids in the study.

“The implication is where you start in life is where you end up in life,” Alexander said on John Hopkins’ HUB website. “It’s very sobering to see how this all unfolds.”

Equally sobering are the differences researchers found between white and black families. Poor white men who didn’t attend college were much more likely to find work in Baltimore’s much-shrunken industrial economy. Eighty-nine percent of white high-school dropouts were employed by age 22, compared with 40 percent of black dropouts. Black women had it the worst, with both lower earnings and less opportunity to marry a spouse with dependable income.

“Status attainment through school… helps perpetuate the advantage of higher-SES youth over lower, but it is access to good paying work that perpetuates the privilege of working-class white men over working-class black men,” Alexander and his co-authors write in their book. And that access typically comes from the ability of white men to tap into social networks unavailable to black men when it comes time to find work, they say.

It’s worth noting that the story told by these Baltimore kids doesn't necessarily hold true everywhere. As the researchers note, Baltimore endured an especially dramatic economic collapse in recent decades as industrial jobs ebbed, and white flight from inner-city neighborhoods was equally dramatic. But for cities that experienced similar economic and racial convulsions, the findings from Baltimore aren’t encouraging.

While the Baltimore study wasn’t specifically focused on how the children’s health played out between the groups, prior research has much to say on the topic.

Professor David Williams of the Harvard School of Public Health is considered one of the leading researchers on the ways in which factors such as race, class, status and neighborhood shape health. He developed something called the “Everyday Discrimination Scale” in 1997, which is still used to measure how the perception of discrimination may be influencing one’s health and well-being.

In a recent video interview with the California Health Report, Williams points out that the connection between socioeconomic status and health has held true in every country in which it’s been studied:

One of the strongest predictors of how long and how well individuals live is what we call in the academic world socioeconomic status… Persons who have high levels of income, education and occupational status live longer and have fewer illnesses than people who have lower levels.

Williams goes on to explain that higher education and income mean not just that you can make more informed health decisions, but also that you have the money for a gym membership to exercise, yoga classes to relax, healthy fruits and vegetables to eat and safe, low-stress neighborhoods in which to live. Or as Williams succinctly put it:

Money matters in our society, and having economic resources can make a difference in helping you to capitalize and benefit on the resources in society that in fact promote good health.

Not having those resources means you’re far more likely to suffer from poor health, chronic disease and premature death. Given that social mobility is one way by which people can improve their health, the Baltimore study’s fatalistic finding that those born without means tend to stay that way is sobering indeed.

Photo by Seth Sawyers via Flickr.

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