Surprised? Even Poor Whites Have It Better Than Blacks
A 25-year study of blacks and whites in Baltimore finds that income status can be an equalizer, but race does make a difference.
Posted: July 10 2014 3:00 AM
Boarded up row houses in east Baltimore, three blocks north of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Dec. 2, 2003
Alex Wong/Getty Images
practically, we’re told—again and again—that education is the golden
ticket to the American dream. This is a meritocracy! Study diligently,
put the work in and you, too, can get ahead, leapfrogging over your
parents on the social strata. All you have to do is grab those
bootstraps and pull. Hard.
For 25 years, a group of researchers from Johns Hopkins University
tracked 800 mostly low-income schoolchildren from Baltimore from the
start of first grade until they were just shy of 30 years old. In one of
the very few projects to compare and contrast the lives of poor black
and poor white kids, the researchers interviewed the youngsters, their
parents and teachers, checking in with them regularly over the years.
What the sociologists found was disheartening: The long-held truism that
education trumps social class didn’t hold up. The children who were
born poor tended to stay poor—no matter their race.
More often than not, one’s lot in life is determined by that of one’s
parents. Almost half the kids surveyed remained in the same social
class as their parents—and almost none of the kids, black or white, from
low-income families graduated from college. Four percent of kids from
poor homes finished college by age 28, compared with 45 percent of kids
coming from more well-off backgrounds, even though the disadvantaged
kids spoke of wanting to continue their educations. They, too, believed
that education was the key to getting ahead.
“It’s a story of middle-class privilege,” says sociologist Karl
Alexander, who, along with his colleagues Doris Entwistle and Linda
Olson, reported their findings in a new book, The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth and the Transition to Adulthood.
“When the dust settles, not very many of these [inner city] kids are
moving up in life, following the path that we tell them to follow,”
Alexander says. “That’s sad and that’s sobering. The challenges are very
real and there are many of them. There’s not just one thing getting in
And there are more things getting in the way for poor black kids
compared with their poor white counterparts, according to Alexander.
Low-income urban white neighborhoods tend to be more stable and less
violent than urban black neighborhoods with an almost identical income
profile, he says.
Black neighborhoods in Baltimore were more likely to be upended by
public works projects; highway construction or new railroad lines cut a
swath through once-stable communities, sending families scattering.
Ninety percent of families that had to relocate because of public works
projects were African American, according to Alexander. Working-class
white kids were more likely to stay in the same neighborhood, fostering
stability and extended social networks.
high-paying working-class jobs all but evaporated. But of those
blue-collar jobs that remained, white men were much more likely to find
work, according to Alexander. At age 28, the last year the former
schoolkids were surveyed, 45 percent of the white men were working in
those jobs, compared with 15 percent of black men. Among the students
who dropped out, only 40 percent of black dropouts were working,
compared with 89 percent of white dropouts. Low-income white men in the
study had the lowest rate of college attendance or completion, but they
also earned double what black men earned.
Why such a glaring difference?
“We see a very clear pattern of white privilege that probably extends
back a few generations to Baltimore’s boom times [in the ’40s to
’50s],” Alexander says. “I personally think there’s a lot of racism in
the mix, but we can’t quantify that.”
White working-class men benefited from knowing someone who knows
someone, according to Alexander. They might get a job working in, say,
their uncle’s auto shop. Or their dad works in the shipyards, so that
gives them an in. It’s only natural for parents to look out for their
kids, Alexander says, but in so doing, this further perpetuates white
“If you look at the kids that don’t go to college, white
[working-class] guys have a tremendous advantage over everyone else,”
Low-income white women also benefit, he says. They are the ones who
marry the white guy with the good blue-collar job. And though poor white
women typically had the same rate of teen births as did poor black
women, they were more likely to either marry or be in long-term
partnerships, the study found.
and upper-class white men were much more likely to report using drugs,
binge drinking and smoking, followed by lower-income white men—findings
that contradict the stereotype of inner-city black men on drugs.
The study also found other interesting black-white disparities.
Middle- and upper-class white men were much more likely to report using
drugs, binge drinking and smoking, followed by lower-income white
men—findings that contradict the stereotype of inner-city black men on
drugs. These men were also more likely to have an arrest record, the
survey found, while low-income black men were more likely to have a
conviction: 49 percent compared with 41 percent of low-income white men.
But serving time in prison didn’t hold white men back when it came to
Alexander, who spent most of his career at Johns Hopkins tracking
these students, admits that he found the study results depressing. But
he says the young adults today are anything but depressed. Most
expressed a desire to continue their education. When asked what they
considered being “successful” meant, many said that being alive and
living a drug-free life and being able to be with their families was
what mattered most to them.
“There’s a certain sentiment in this country that the only way you
can be happy is to make a lot of money and have a high-status job,”
Alexander says. “But on the ground, there are other things that are more
important to these young people. And these are substantial values.”
Teresa Wiltz is a journalist based in Washington, D.C.