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Study Finds Academic, Economic Futures Linked to Family Background

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A Johns Hopkins University study that tracked almost 800 Baltimore residents from elementary school until they reached adulthood determined that their fates were "substantially determined" by their families' socioeconomic status.

The study's findings paint a stark picture about the struggle for low-income youth to overcome the financial deck stacked against them at birth. 

According to a news release, the former students are now almost 30 years old, and nearly half of the study's subjects remained at the same socio-economic status as their parents. Only 33 of them, or 4 percent, moved from growing up in low-income families to earning high incomes as adults. Conversely, only 19 of those from higher-earning families are currently earning low-incomes today.

"The implication is where you start in life is where you end up in life," Karl Alexander, the Johns Hopkins sociologist who led the study, said in the news release. "It's very sobering to see how this all unfolds."

Alexander reveals his three decades of research in the book, "The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth and the Transition to Adulthood." He conducted the study with fellow Johns Hopkins University researchers and co-authors Doris Entwisle, a professor of sociology and engineering science, who died in 2013, and Linda S. Olson, an associate research scientist with the Baltimore Education Research Consortium (BERC) and the Center for Social Organization of Schools. Since 1982, the researchers  have conducted interviews with students, teachers and parents to chronicle the lives of these 790 study subjects. The interviews began when the students were 1st graders.

Among the most compelling findings regarding the study's participants are:

  • Only 4 percent of those from low-income families had a college degree at age 28, compared with 45 percent of the those from higher-income backgrounds.
  • At age 28, 45 percent of the white men from low-income backgrounds without college degrees were working in construction trades and industrial crafts in Baltimore, compared with 15 percent of the black men from similar backgrounds. The white men earned, on average, more than twice what the black men made in those higher-paying trades.
  • White and black women from low-income households in the study group had similar teen birth rates; however the white women more often had a spouse or partner.
  • "Better-off" white men in the study had the highest self-reported rates of drug use, binge drinking, and chronic smoking, followed by white men from poor families. Black men trailed white men in each of these categories. 
  • At age 28, 49 percent of the black men and 41 percent of the white men from low-income families had been convicted of a crime. 
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