Thursday, September 23, 2021

Book review: The Long Shadow


Fox News reported today that a black man, for whom the status of being armed or unarmed couldn’t be determined, had been shot by Baltimore police officers in the same area where riots occurred a week ago. The report is inaccurate in that the man was not shot by police—no police weapons were fired in the incident—and he was not “running from police before he was shot” because he was never shot in the first place. What seems to have happened is that the man was being arrested for a weapons violation and the revolver he was carrying was thrown to the ground and fired one shot. The bullet hit no one.

The URL of the story on Fox News is still That means the original title of the story, the headline, was “Man shot multiple times by Baltimore Police.” Fox News has since changed the headline to read “Conflicting reports on gun incident in Baltimore” (as of 7:30 PM), which is still wrong but at least doesn’t feature the inaccuracy in the URL for the story. The only conflicts in the story came from Fox’s own incompetent news crew that was reported to be “on the scene.”

The riots in Baltimore last week will be analyzed for decades to come, I’m sure. In the meantime, news organizations need to ensure that stories are vetted before they hit the Web, as this kind of sensationalism can lead to an uptick in violence. If the stories are inaccurate, protests could begin for no reason at all.

Our approach has been a little tamer. As a person who works in Baltimore, not more than a mile or two from where the protests hit, I choose to look instead at research published last year by a group at the Johns Hopkins University. They’ve been studying urban life in the western part of Baltimore, where Freddie Gray grew up, for a quarter century. Their 2014 book, The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood, is available for Kindle for about $4 (paperback $27).

For 25 years, the authors of The Long Shadow tracked the life progress of a group of almost 800 predominantly low-income Baltimore school children. The study paid special attention to how opportunities available to them as early as first grade shaped their socioeconomic status as adults. The analysis shows that the children who lived in more cohesive neighborhoods, had stronger families, and attended better schools tended to maintain a higher economic status later in life. As young adults, they held higher-income jobs and had achieved more personal milestones, such as marriage, than their lower-status counterparts.

Bibliographic reference: Karl 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).

From the preface:

The project continued almost a quarter century, monitoring the samples’s life progress up to a decade past high school. The Long Shadow takes advantage of the long duration and broad sweep of the project’s field work to examine the unfolding script of the children’s lives, starting at age six through elementary school, middle school, and high school, and continuing far into their third decade. It identifies resources that matter for adult well being, as well as how they overlap and cumulate through the life course. We see both consistency and change. Some patterns evident early in life persist, but others are replaced or modified, always against the changing backdrop of conditions in Baltimore—deindustrialization, population loss, and, for many, impoverishment.

Some of the findings reported in this volume will be familiar, but novel details also appear. Some of the latter involve the situation of poor whites in the sample, and by implication in other places like Baltimore. They are a group seldom visible in research on the urban disadvantaged, but the contrast between their life experience and that of African Americans is striking. Status attainment through school (which we probe in detail) 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. By partnering with these men, white working-class women share in that privilege. African Americans who begin life in similar circumstances as their white counterparts realize neither advantage—they lack access to well-paid jobs and, as young adults, black women are much more likely to be without husbands and partners, which sets them back financially.

The book then goes on to present evidence in support of the fundamental claims in the preface: People who grew up in poverty are at a disadvantage, but when comparing white people who grew up in poverty to black people at the same socioeconomic status, whites end up better off because they have access to higher-paying jobs and, for women, partners.

On the surface, I believe the worst thing you can tell a kid is that he has a low probability of succeeding or of overcoming obstacles his ZIP Code has bestowed upon him. But, I also note that one of Einstein’s teachers told him he would never amount to much, and look how he turned out. Unfortunately, notable exceptions like Albert Einstein make the news but do not represent the majority of students in our school communities. I’m talking about the so-called “middle ground” kids who don’t make headlines—for either good or bad reasons—but still grow up trying to contribute a verse to our ongoing and unending narrative.

These kids in the middle won’t get full scholarships to Ivy League colleges, and they won’t need special services in school or as fully functioning adults. They’re not the students who rioted in Baltimore last week. Rather, they’re the kids who might have protested peacefully but took cover when things got violent. They tend to be invisible to people who study schools, and that’s why we need to look at studies like those in this book and not only at news reports. If we rely only on news reports, we’re considering a small part of the population, and that part’s usually the bad part, the part in which not even most students would want to claim membership.

Educational enrollment & completion perpetuate the high-SES advantage

Researchers found that only 12 percent of students who grew up with a low socioeconomic status had enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs by age 28, compared to 27 percent from the middle-SES group and 61 percent from the high-SES group. On top of that, the completion rate was significantly different for those enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs based on their SES: Almost three-fourths of students from the high-SES group completed their bachelor’s degrees, compared to only about one-third of those in the low-SES group.

These differences are significant because, although educational attainment may not have played a leading role in the minds of a majority of students in the “middle ground” who grew up in these Baltimore neighborhoods, a bachelor’s degree is almost certain to pay off for them with higher-paying and more secure jobs in the future. Only about 1 in 24 low-SES students completed a bachelor’s degree by age 28, compared to almost 1 in 2 high-SES students. In this way, the poor stay poor and the rich get richer through education. The advantage of the high-SES students is perpetuated.

It breaks my heart to know people are trying to pick themselves up through a postsecondary education but falling short. Out of some 800 participants, 407 enrolled in some form of postsecondary schooling, but only 190 finished those programs. The authors don’t analyze why those certificates or degrees weren’t completed, except to look at students who chose to enroll in community college instead of certificate or bachelor’s degree programs. Academic preparation is the downfall of many community college students, they write, but “the daunting practical obstacles they face apart from academics, including

  • transportation
  • inflexible work schedules
  • finances
  • family obligations
  • job pressures
  • run-ins with the law

“receive little comment in critiques of the community college student profile.” Let’s add some commentary to the narrative about each of these possible reasons for non-completion.

With respect to transportation, I conducted an informal study in February on the buses that serve Baltimore-area commuters. I chose two routes, one that runs from downtown to the northern part of the county and one that serves the southern part of the city and goes to BWI Thurgood Marshall International Airport. I studied each route for an entire day.

Fewer than 60 percent of the buses were on schedule, according to published timetables, for both routes. A number of buses didn’t even show up and may have broken down. I didn’t call the agency to find out what had happened to the missed buses, primarily because I didn’t care about it any more than the people did who might have gotten to work late or missed a class because of the low quality of public transportation in the city.

My little experiment wasn’t peer-reviewed, but it speaks of unreliable public transportation in Baltimore. As the current book points out, this may have an impact on how many residents start but don’t complete an associate’s degree program. Work needs to be done here, as transportation problems can lead residents to lose jobs, lose income, fall behind in school, and eventually drop out of everything.

That low-SES residents would have more trouble with finances than their high-SES counterparts goes without saying, but with regard to inflexible work schedules, I can only observe that work schedules are probably the most SES-neutral item on the list. If a business owner has inflexible work schedules, that inflexibility is likely to affect all employees equally, regardless of their SES. However, it’s possible, though left unreported in the current book, that owners of businesses that employ primarily low-SES workers are more likely to be inflexible. This remains to be studied, as Maryland looks to enhance its business-friendliness in the future.

I suppose it’s likely as well that low-SES students need the jobs they have while they’re in college more than their high-SES counterparts. That could make inflexibility in those jobs a bigger problem for low-SES students than it is for high-SES students, but unfortunately, there’s little policymakers can do to change this situation. It also underscores the next issue Mr Alexander et al identify: that of finances. Raising the minimum wage could help give working people more money, but the jobs would still be minimum-wage jobs and still just as critical to low-SES students’ lives.

Job pressures, on the other hand, are more likely to get in the way for employees at companies that typically employ college-educated workers. This may balance out the inflexibility more common in low-SES jobs, if such a disparity even exists, but again, the authors don’t really delve into this with great depth.

Finally, the low-SES population, especially those who are black, are much more likely to have run-ins with the law. We don’t have to look very hard to find police reports that show a greater number of African-Americans being stopped and questioned by police for the same offenses as whites who are ignored. In fact, just today, the New York Times reported that a black man from Freddie Gray’s neighborhood, a college student, was “harshly questioned” by police who accused him of throwing away drugs when he stopped to tie his shoelace.

“Sandtown is a tough community to grow up in,” the Times quoted him as saying. “And I’m quite sure it’s a tough community to police. But the reason Freddie Gray is so personal to me is that I could have been Freddie Gray. It could have been me in the back of that van.”

And if it had happened that way, this kid would have become another statistic, adding to the number of low-SES children who begin a college degree program but don’t finish it. But clearly, the color of his skin would have played a role.

The remaining differences—that white men get higher-paying jobs than blacks from the same socioeconomic tiers and that white women tend to build partnerships with men who have high-paying jobs more than black women do—are beyond the scope of our schools and therefore outside our focus in this report.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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