We have spent a lot of time in 2014 reporting and writing on inequality — how it's inherited from one generation to the next and perpetuated across time, how it's embedded in the communities we build and the public policies we design, how its economic implications are closely bound up in race.
One of our favorite studies we came across this year touched on many of these threads. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University followed for years a generation of children who began first grade in the Baltimore public school system in 1982. The stories (and data) about their lives tell us much about what it's like to grow up poor in urban American — and what it takes to escape those odds. Below is our story about this research, originally published Aug. 29.
BALTIMORE — In the beginning, when they knew just where to find everyone, they pulled the children out of their classrooms.
They sat in any quiet corner of the schools they could claim: the sociologists from Johns Hopkins and, one at a time, the excitable first-graders. Monica Jaundoo, whose parents never made it past the eighth grade. Danté Washington, a boy with a temper and a dad who drank too much. Ed Klein, who came from a poor white part of town where his mother sold cocaine.
They talked with the sociologists about teachers and report cards, about growing up to become rock stars or police officers. For many of the children, this seldom happened in raucous classrooms or overwhelmed homes: a quiet, one-on-one conversation with an adult eager to hear just about them. “I have this special friend,” Jaundoo thought as a 6-year-old, “who’s only talking to me.”
Later, as the children grew and dispersed, some falling out of the school system and others leaving the city behind, the conversations took place in McDonald’s, in public libraries, in living rooms or lock-ups. The children — 790 of them, representative of the Baltimore public school system’s first-grade class in 1982 — grew harder to track as the patterns among them became clearer.
Over time, their lives were constrained — or cushioned — by the circumstances they were born into, by the employment and education prospects of their parents, by the addictions or job contacts that would become their economic inheritance. Johns Hopkins researchers Karl Alexander and Doris Entwisle watched as less than half of the group graduated high school on time. Before they turned 18, 40 percent of the black girls from low-income homes had given birth to their own babies. At the time of the final interviews, when the children were now adults of 28, more than 10 percent of the black men in the study were incarcerated. Twenty-six of the children, among those they could find at last count, were no longer living.
A mere 4 percent of the first-graders Alexander and Entwisle had classified as the “urban disadvantaged” had by the end of the study completed the college degree that’s become more valuable than ever in the modern economy. A related reality: Just 33 of 314 had left the low-income socioeconomic status of their parents for the middle class by age 28.
Today, the “kids” — as Alexander still calls them — are 37 or 38. Alexander, now 68, retired from Johns Hopkins this summer just as the final, encompassing book from the 25-year study was published. Entwisle, then 89, died of lung cancer last November shortly after the final revisions on the book. Its sober title, “The Long Shadow,” names the thread running through all those numbers and conversations: The families and neighborhoods these children were born into cast a heavy influence over the rest of their lives, from how they fared in the first grade to what they became as grownups.
Some of them — children largely from the middle-class and blue-collar white families still in Baltimore’s public school system in 1982 — grew up to managerial jobs and marriages and their own stable homes. But where success occurred, it was often passed down, through family resources or networks simply out of reach of most of the disadvantaged.
Collectively, the study of their lives, and the outliers among them, tells an unusually detailed story — both empirical and intimate — of the forces that surround and steer children growing up in a post-industrial city like Baltimore.
“The kids they followed grew up in the worst era for big cities in the U.S. at any point in our history,” says Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at New York University familiar with the research. Their childhood spanned the crack epidemic, the decline of urban industry, the waning national interest in inner cities and the war on poverty.
In that sense, this study is also about Baltimore itself — how it appeared to researchers and their subjects, to children and the adults they would later become. In the East Baltimore neighborhoods where Monica Jaundoo lived as a child, she told of the lots she was warned away from where junkies lingered, scattering their empty capsules and syringes. She did not realize until she returned as an adult, with her own children, that those places were playgrounds.
‘We saw these kids grow up’
Alexander and Entwisle did not set out to follow these children for what would become whole careers and lives.
“You’d have to be crazy at the outset to say ‘we’re going to do this for a quarter-century,’ ” Alexander says. He is tall — no doubt even more so from the vantage point of a first-grader — with wire-rimmed glasses and a neatly trimmed white beard. On a Friday this summer, he was packing up his office on Johns Hopkins’ Homewood campus in Baltimore for the smaller quarters of a retired researcher.
When he arrived in the sociology department in 1972, Entwisle was a fixture there. Together, they planned to study how children navigate one of life’s first major transitions, from home to school. They wanted to follow them from first grade into second, and at the time, that idea was novel. Child psychologists were then studying children this young. And sociologists were then interested in teenagers. But few researchers believed then that the context of these early years was crucial for everything that comes next — or that you could learn much about it by asking children themselves.
Entwisle and Alexander identified children from 20 of the city’s public elementary schools for what they called the Beginning School Study. Once the project was underway, they realized some of the hardest parts were behind them: identifying the random sample, securing the consent of parents and the cooperation of schools. Why not keep going For one year more? Then another?
By the fifth grade, the children had scattered into the city’s 105 public elementary schools. The conversation topics evolved over time, from report cards and dream jobs to drug use and job prospects. The longer the study went on, with semiannual and then yearly interviews through high school, the more remarkable its two foundations became: The researchers managed to find the children again and again — and then get them to talk about the very things that made them hard to find.
“We saw these kids grow up,” Alexander says. “They weren’t just anonymous numbers. In a typical survey project, you knock on doors, you make calls, you ask questions, you get your answers, and you go away. This wasn’t like that. We were with these kids a long, long time.”
They sent each child a birthday card every year, signed by everyone who worked on the Beginning School Study (its name stuck even as its subjects moved on). It was a small gesture with an added benefit. When the cards bounced back undelivered, they knew they had to work to find the child the next year.
The findings, meanwhile, accumulated in dozens of journal articles. Alexander and Entwisle helped establish that young children make valuable subjects, that their first-grade foundations predict their later success, that more privileged families are better able to leverage the promise of education. Also, disadvantaged children often fall even further back over the summer, without the aid of activities and summer camps.
“When I got to Hopkins,” says Stefanie DeLuca, a sociologist in the department, “I realized the things I knew about education inequality I knew because my colleagues had published it.”
We like to think that education is an equalizer — that through it, children may receive the tools to become entrepreneurs when their parents were unemployed, lawyers when their single moms had 10th-grade educations. But Alexander and Entwisle kept coming back to one data point: the 4 percent of disadvantaged children who earned college degrees by age 28.
“We hold that out to them as what they should work toward,” Alexander says. Yet in their data, education did not appear to provide a dependable path to stable jobs and good incomes for the worst off.
The story is different for children from upper-income families, who supplement classroom learning with homework help, museum trips and college expectations. Alexander and Entwisle found one exception: Low-income white boys attained some of the lowest levels of education. But they earned the highest incomes among the urban disadvantaged.
They were able, Alexander and Entwisle realized, to tap into what remains of the good blue-collar jobs in Baltimore. These are the skilled crafts, the union gigs, jobs in trades traditionally passed from one generation to the next and historically withheld from blacks. These children did not inherit college expectations. But they inherited job networks. And these are the two paths to success in the Beginning School Study.
“One works well for the middle class,” Alexander says. “The other works well for white men.”
The Beginning School Study amasses a devastating time-lapse of the layers of disadvantage that burden children as they move through life, as teen mothers are born of teen mothers, as parents without degrees struggle to help their children obtain them. It’s tempting to conclude that not much can be done about a problem so deeply rooted. And yet, outliers rise from the study as well.
“You knew they were tracking people and figuring out what you were doing with your life,” says John Houser, who, like Jaundoo and Washington, emerges as an outlier to the study’s broadly discouraging findings. “When I was older,” he says, “I felt good saying, ‘Hey, I went to college. I’m not stuck in that shitty . . . neighborhood that I grew up in.’ ”
Danté Washington points to the alley behind his boyhood home, the four-story East Baltimore rowhouse where his mother still lives. He played basketball there using a makeshift crate. The brother of his childhood best friend was also killed there by a man trying to rob him. “In this area,” he says, “hearing a gunshot is like hearing a truck down the street.”
The brick homes here, with their high ceilings and classic stone stoops, could exist in an upper-income Baltimore enclave. But the home next to his mother’s is boarded up, as is the next one. A balloon tied up in the park across the street marks a site of mourning. On a Friday afternoon, stoops are full of men, not home early from work, but because they had nowhere to go.
Most of the children Washington grew up with are still here. “When you grow up in an environment where there’s not a traditional next step after high school, the kid is stuck with a question mark,” he says. “ ‘Okay, what should I do now? Should I work? Should I sell drugs?’ ”
Washington was raised here by a single mother. His father died of liver problems when he was 12. He graduated on time, a mediocre student in and out of modest trouble. His childhood temper is hard to conjure from his kind manner.
Washington had a son when he was 17, and he has worked nearly every day since. He worked at Au Bon Pain, then MCI, and for many years since, at a publishing company in sales and business development. When the Johns Hopkins researchers last interviewed him, he only had a high school degree. But in 2013, he finished a bachelor’s in business, earned at night at Strayer University. He owns his own home and, notably as he drives through his old neighborhood, a Lexus.
He wants to become a financial adviser, so that he can talk with people in communities such as this one about the things no one discusses here: retirement, equity, savings.
Looking back at the forces that nudged him on this path, a few seem significant. His mother was always employed, in an administrative job with the school district. Leaving school was never an option. He was put in a series of high school programs for students interested in business, including one where he spent his summers — that crucial time — on the campus of Morgan State University.
Houser grew up in a parallel low-income but white neighborhood. His parents were married, his father a sprinkler fitter. Neither had more than a high school degree, but they were persistent about schoolwork. “It’s funny,” he says, “because you think about this later on in life — that’s the deciding factor.”
Among about 30 friends in his childhood circle, he is the only one who went to college. He has a bachelor’s of fine arts from Frostburg State University and a longtime job as a graphic designer. He laughs now at the early photography he tried in high school, artsy photos of drug needles from the neighborhood.
It’s harder to pinpoint what directed their lives of other outliers away from the broad findings of the Beginning School Study. Jaundoo, who was expelled from a series of schools for fighting, had her first child at 20, not 17. Those few years can make a vast difference between finishing high school and not, between earning work experience and having none.
Today, she has a certification to run sleep studies in a medical lab, and she raises her two children in Baltimore County outside of “the city.” She describes herself as a girl who dreamed of having the money to take a cab everywhere. “I never mentioned having my own car,” she says. “My expectations were just so low.”
Ed Klein’s path is perhaps less instructive. He grew up in a poor white neighborhood and was selling drugs with his mother by age 12. After dropping out of high school and spending five years in prison, he picked up the other work he had done as a kid, tinkering on game consoles and computers.
“I don’t like saying this, but it was like I substituted the dope dealing for computers,” he says now, “because it was the only thing in my position — no high school diploma, no work experience — that would give me pretty much the same income as a dope dealer.”
Today he has a computer repair shop and a business handling IT for local companies. He earned his high school degree and eventually a college one, too. Each of these lives suggests an alternative to the long shadow, along lines that another generation of sociologists will understand even better.
“It’s real. It happens,” DeLuca says. “That’s not random.”
A study in intervention
By this summer, all of the names and identifying details had been painstakingly redacted from the hundreds of files in the Beginning School Study offices. Each child had one, containing the handwritten interview forms and school notes going back to the first grade.
In July, these paper records were boxed up too, shipped to a library at Harvard, where they will be scanned for future researchers, the physical copies shredded. With the identities of the children gone, no one will be able to reopen the study, to interview Jaundoo and Washington again at 45 or 60 (the subjects quoted here agreed to speak by name through the university). But other researchers will no doubt think to pose different questions of the data collected from their lives.
“There’s a sense in which this could have gone on forever,” Alexander says. “Except it couldn’t. We were wearing down.”
As he retires, Alexander feels that they followed the children long enough to learn something meaningful about their lives as independent adults. Occasionally, people ask him whether the study itself became an intervention. Did the presence of these curious researchers alter the course of any child’s life?
Alexander suspects that the forces they documented — the family backgrounds, the problem behaviors and the economic prospects — were much more powerful than any annual conversation.
“If it were that easy to reroute peoples’ life paths,” he says, “we should be doing it all the time for everyone.”