The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood

Education-policy wonks should take a long look at The Long Shadow, a book based on a twenty-five-year study by Johns Hopkins University researchers. Following 790 Baltimore first-graders in 1982 until their late twenties, this book offers a rich research account of what policy analysts across fields have long tried to figure out: How can low-income children rise out of poverty and into the middle class? The sobering answer is they don’t. Kids born into poor families grew up to be poor themselves. Nearly half of the children in the study had the same income status as their parents; and only thirty-three children of families in the lowest-income bracket moved to a high-income bracket by their twenties. The education picture isn’t any sunnier. A mere 4 percent of those from low-income families had a college degree at twenty-eight (compared to 45 percent of their higher-income peers). The long shadow of poverty stretches further for African Americans: 40 percent of blacks who dropped out of high school were now working, compared to 89 percent of white high school dropouts. Women fared worse than men. Black and white women both earned less than their male counterparts, but white women tended to be better off financially with the benefit of marriage or a live-in partner. Black women earned less than white women and were less likely to be in stable relationships. The reading is sobering because the data is stark. Education reformers should take heed that family socio-economic status—at least today—matters more than educational attainment.

SOURCE: Karl K. Alexander, Doris Entwisle, and Linda Olson, The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2014.

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