The Long Shadow

Alexander, K.L., Entwisle, D.R., & Olson, L. (2014) The Long Shadow: Family Background Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

The Long Shadow

The central message of The Long Shadow is that social mobility in America is a myth. The authors combine objectivist and subjectivist epistemologies, using a theoretical perspective combining postpositivism implicit in their statistical analyses with some interpretivism shown by their use of first-person narratives. The methodology centers around a longitudinal study of 790 first graders tracked over 20 years via regular interviews. This data is extensively supplemented by other statistical measures. Periodically the authors quote interviews with a particular subject to put a human face on a particular statistical theme. Their procedure is transformative and concurrent, with individual perspectives and broader statistical trends mutually informing one another. The authors aim to show that underprivileged Baltimore residents show little social mobility, but that the reasons for their lack of mobility are complex, multifaceted and intersectional.

The authors devote considerable criticism to David Simon’s depictions of Baltimore in The Corner and his later TV writing. Baltimore certainly has its problems, but its poorest residents are more diverse than the drug dealers and criminals that Simon portrays. Census data shows that the vast majority of residents are not poor, or high school dropouts, or unwed mothers. And while Simon focuses mostly on poor black people (as does most of the academic literature), 75 percent of poor people in Baltimore are white.

The Youth Panel uses probability sampling to improve its internal validity. The students in the sample were carefully chosen to represent Baltimore’s demographics generally. The authors sorted the city’s schools by racial-ethnic composition and neighborhood socioeconomic status, and then randomly selected schools from each of the categories (e.g. racially integrated/blue collar.) Students were then randomly selected from each representative school.

The authors define SES as a combination of income, education and occupation, since none of these factors in isolation represent SES well. They furthermore use individual narratives to show the complexities underlying the bare statistics. For example, they give the stories stories of two different women whose parents worked, but with different consequences for their upbringing due to differences in extended family support. They show that single parenting is not a problem in and of itself. Societies with strong social safety nets do not show the same adverse outcomes for children that America does. But support from a strong extended family can also mitigate the disadvantages of single parenthood.

Census data suggests that poverty and employment between black and white low-SES neighborhoods are equivalent. The authors add nuance to this picture with statistics on neighborhood crime exposure and residents’ sentiments to show that black neighborhoods bear additional burdens from segregation and urban renewal. Black Baltimore residents are more likely to attend low-income schools regardless of family status, while white residents are similarly more likely to attend middle-income schools.

Parenthood at an early age also affects lower-SES white and black women differently. White mothers are more likely to be married or have partners, while black mothers are more likely to be alone. While the economic incentives to have children later are obvious, Alexander et al use subjective findings to explain why lower-SES women nevertheless have children young: they view children not as a hardship, but as a source of joy and purpose, the main source of validation in a life that otherwise offers little of it. If school completion and employment are going to be difficult anyway, these women decide they might as well feel good about themselves. Who’s to say they’re wrong?

Completing a bachelor’s degree is difficult for low-SES students due to conflicts with work and family obligations. Two-year programs with more accessible structures might seem to offer better outcomes, but these programs have even lower rates of completion than four-year ones do. Predictably, SES runs parallel to schooling, except in the skilled trades like construction. Baltimore’s old industrial economy supported well-payed jobs for the least educated workers, and that is still the case for those jobs that remain. However, historically these jobs were only available to white men, and while official segregation is no longer practiced, the personal networks that give access to these jobs still heavily favor the same people.

The authors take a postpositivist approach when they examine rates of school completion, but they are interpretivist in their explanations. For example, they show how parents’ and children’s expectations shape their outcomes—while 75 percent of higher-SES children consistently stated that they expected to finish college, only 23 percent of lower-SES youth. If a child does not expect or hope to overcome the obstacles to their education, then they are unlikely to find the motivation to do so. This is an example of the social construction of stratification by family background, as external structural forces influence internal beliefs and attitudes.

The authors find that out of all the factors influencing school outcomes for children in the panel, a few stand out statistically: school and neighborhood SES context, the level of neighborhood violent crime, and the school’s academic quality. It would appear that the socioceconomics of neighborhoods and schools do more to determine school quality than anything else. Here we see the tangled causality at work in life outcomes generally. Low SES puts families in low-SES neighborhoods and low-SES schools, which in turn contribute to the likelihood that students will end up with low SES themselves. While most of the members of the panel reported a desire to attain more education, it does not appear that this will be an avenue for higher status for most of them, particular people of color. As the authors puts it: “Status attainment through school privileges the urban advantaged, whereas the blue-collar regime privileges the white urban disadvantaged, men in the workplace and women through family” (187).

A child’s early home and family environment does not completely determine their life outcomes, but it weighs heavily. The resources that a child has to draw on are present or absent before age six, and overcoming a lack of those resources gets increasingly difficult with age. The SES of parents, schools and neighborhoods all tend to align, unsurprisingly. Parents’ expectations and goals (or lack thereof) for their children weigh heavily on children’s own expectations and goals. School effects from curriculum and tracking are cumulative. Some Baltimore children overcome the odds, but for the majority, the idea of America as a land of equal opportunity does not match reality.

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