Economic mobility is tough when you grow up poor and black, according to a 25-year study of a group of Baltimore students. But a forthcoming report says interventions beginning very young and continuing regularly can make a difference. We explore the long shadow of childhood poverty locally and nationally and the efforts to overcome it.


  • Karl Alexander Academy Professor and Research Professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University; co-author "The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood (Russell Safe Foundation, 2014)
  • Isabel Sawhill Senior Fellow, Economic Studies; Director, Budgeting for National Priorities; Co-Director, Center on Children and Families, Brookings Institution
  • Jenny Reed Policy Director, DC Fiscal Policy Institute


  • 12:06:39

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. They started in the early '80s with close to 800 low income Baltimore first graders. Over the next 20 years, the team of Johns Hopkins sociologists interviewed the children and their parents repeatedly. How many finished high school? Went to college? How many found well-paying jobs without a college degree? The researchers wanted to know how childhood poverty affects peoples' upward mobility later in life.

  • 12:07:19

    MR. KOJO NNAMDITheir answer? Poverty casts a long shadow that's hard to escape. The report comes as President Obama is apparently shifting his rhetoric away from a focus on the gap between rich and poor. And it comes at a time when Americans continue to cling to our longstanding belief Meritocracy, the idea that those at the bottom can pull themselves up with hard work and good education. But researchers are finding that equal opportunity for upward mobility is not as prevalent as we might think.

  • 12:07:49

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining me to explore mobility and the long arm of poverty is Karl Alexander, academy professor and research professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. And co-author of the book, "The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth and the Transition to Adulthood." Karl Alexander, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:08

    MR. KARL ALEXANDERWell, thank you for having me.

  • 12:08:09

    NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Jenny Reed, policy director with the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. Jenny Reed, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:16

    MS. JENNY REEDThank you very much for having me.

  • 12:08:17

    NNAMDIJoining us by phone from Colorado is Isabel Sawhill, senior fellow economics studies and co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution. Isabel Sawhill, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:28

    MS. ISABEL SAWHILLMy pleasure.

  • 12:08:30

    NNAMDIWe invite listeners to join the conversation. You can do so by calling 800-433-8850. What do you see as the biggest obstacle to overcoming childhood poverty? 800-433-8850. You can send email to or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. Karl Alexander, in 1982, you and your colleagues interviewed close to 800 Baltimore first graders and their families to study the effects of childhood poverty. You interviewed them repeatedly for more than two decades into their late 20s. Why did you start with six year olds and what was the question you were seeking to answer?

  • 12:09:07

    ALEXANDERWell, the -- at the outset, the intent was to focus on the period of early schooling, which is why we started with first graders. This is -- the project -- we refer to the project as the "Beginning School Study Youth (unintelligible) " And the beginning period of schooling is the transition into first grade. Our sense at the time was that it would make a large difference in children's eventual well-being if they got off to a strong start academically at school, as opposed to a bumpy beginning. And so, the intent of the project, initially, was to be there when it was happening.

  • 12:09:39

    ALEXANDERTo observe closely the children's experiences as first graders and talk with their parents and their teachers and scrutinize school records. Then, the plan was to look into second grade, follow them a year later and to see what the consequences might be from their launch as first graders. But one thing led to another and we stayed with it and 25 years later, the project eventually wound down when most of the study participants were age 28. And at that point, we managed to relocate and interview 80 percent of the original group.

  • 12:10:15

    NNAMDISo, the final product expanded the initiative focus of the study.

  • 12:10:22

    ALEXANDERIndeed it did. And it allowed us to pose some very traditional questions in the field of educational stratification. I'm a sociologist. And the issue then became how do circumstances early in life in family, neighborhood and school influence children's later well-being? Initially in school, their academic development and progress, and then beyond the high school years, their prospects for being successful and realizing success later in life in the labor market, in terms of job opportunities and earnings.

  • 12:10:55

    ALEXANDERSo, it became a study that looked at the relationship between social origins, where children began in life, and social destinations as young adults, and then the linkage between origins and destinations.

  • 12:11:07

    NNAMDIWell, could you talk in broad terms, if you will, about how well the students in your study were able to overcome childhood poverty and achieve economic mobility?

  • 12:11:18

    ALEXANDERWell, sadly, not particularly well. This -- that's one of the realizations that we came upon by being able to watch their life course development, you know, closely and carefully over all these years. And in broad stroke terms, the patterning that we see with these study youngsters in Baltimore replicates what's seen nationally. But I think because we stayed at it for so long, we were able to drill down and get some details that you can't see in national level data. But, for example, at the outset, you mentioned Meritocracy and the promise that we hold out to young people, that you can achieve upward mobility by doing what your parents tell you to do.

  • 12:12:00

    ALEXANDERYou know, pay attention to the teachers at school, work hard, and success will come to you. We don't see that. Well, we don't see -- it's not so much that children aren't paying attention to their teachers and working hard, but the success piece of it is missing. When we talk to these youngsters at age 28 and we looked at their highest level of schooling completed, only four percent of the children who started in first grade from disadvantaged families, parents with low levels of formal schooling themselves and low income. Only four percent of those children had a Bachelor's Degree or beyond.

  • 12:12:33

    ALEXANDERThe children of parents who are better off as first graders -- that is their parents, most of them had attended college, about a third had completed college, and they were from solid middle class jobs. Forty-five percent of those children had Bachelor's Degrees and beyond. So that's a 10 fold difference. Four percent to 45 percent. Really quite shocking.

  • 12:12:52

    NNAMDIJenny, here in the District of Columbia, what's the rate of poverty today? How many families and children are living in poverty?

  • 12:12:58

    REEDSo, in D.C., we have just over 100,000 residents that are currently living in poverty, which is about 19,000 dollars for a family of three. We see really high poverty rates among children, especially in certain areas of the city. The eastern and southern parts, where childhood poverty can be greater than 50 percent in some neighborhoods. So, a lot of the findings that Karl found in his book, I think, you know, we are also seeing here in the District, unfortunately. A lot of families are having a hard time escaping poverty, especially because of the lack of well-paying jobs for those families that don't have that college degree that Karl mentioned.

  • 12:13:36

    REEDBut I think one of the things that's important is that we actually have things that we can do about it. There are programs out there that we know can make a difference. For example, the District recently increased the minimum wage. That's a big first step to help make work pay. Because we know that if we give families additional money, they can get those resources to help make a better life for their kids.

  • 12:13:59

    NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, the number to call is 800-433-8850. We are discussing a study that shows the long shadow of poverty. Did you grow up poor? How did that affect your life as an adult? Give us a call. 800-433-8850. Or you can go to our website,, and ask a question or make a comment there. Isabel Sawhill, you look at poverty nationwide. How prevalent is childhood poverty across the country, and what are some of the factors that contribute to it?

  • 12:14:30

    SAWHILLWell, unfortunately, poverty rates amongst children in the US are very high and I think, as Jenny just said, we have too many people who are struggling to raise children on very low incomes. And it's largely because they are working at low wage jobs. And I agree with her that raising the minimum wage would help.

  • 12:14:53

    SAWHILLWe also, I think, need to improve or expand a program called the Earned Income Tax Credit, which provides a wage subsidy to families in low paying jobs. And is very targeted on low income families. But our work at Brookings has also done something similar to what Professor Alexander has done, which is to follow children actually from birth all the way up through their 20s and even beyond.

  • 12:15:31

    SAWHILLAnd we are using national data on a cohort of children who were mostly born in the 1980s and '90s. So, I'm very eager to see his book and compare our results. We will be, actually, just coincidentally, releasing a report on all of this tomorrow, on what we know about why children from less advantaged families run into all of these bumps in the road that Karl described. And we see that if you're born into a less advantaged family, you're less likely to be school ready at age five. You're less likely to be able to read at a basic level or do math by age 10 or 11.

  • 12:16:22

    SAWHILLYou're less likely to graduate from high school. You're less likely to go to college and so forth. And so, you end up, to some extent, repeating the circumstances of your own birth. In other words, looking more like your parents than we would like in a country that celebrates upward mobility. As Professor Alexander said, we don't have as much upward mobility from the bottom as we'd like to think. And that's been pretty well documented now. As you said at the beginning, the President has been increasingly focusing on the need for more mobility and on the long shadow that being born into poverty casts on children's lives.

  • 12:17:08


  • 12:17:09

    REEDYou know, when Isabel mentioned expanding the EITC, it reminded me that the District actually just became the first state in the nation to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless adults. This has been a group that has really long been ignored in poverty assistance. They often don't get as many access to benefits as families with children do. But that doesn't mean they're not supporting children, in some way. It just may be that they're not living with them. So, D.C. is taking the step to be the first in the nation to provide extra assistance to those childless adults, and I think it's gonna make a big difference in helping to make work pay for low income residents.

  • 12:17:49

    NNAMDIKarl, let's look at the employment opportunities for the parents of the students you followed. What was going on economically in Baltimore at the time you started this study back in the early '80s?

  • 12:17:59

    ALEXANDERWell, it was a difficult time for Baltimore and for places like Baltimore throughout the country, especially the east coast and the Midwest industrial belt. It's the de-industrialization script. So, Baltimore was hemorrhaging good paying, blue collar jobs at the time, and also hemorrhaging population. First, losing many of its white citizens and followed, in the not too distant time frame, by middle class African-Americans. The de-industrialization script holds that the industrial manufacturing core that sustained a very vibrant economy, in places like Baltimore during the World War II era, and then for a decade or so after, it was just gone.

  • 12:18:41

    ALEXANDERAnd that's true, what we see -- that's true at the macro level, but on the ground, close to home, in point of fact, there are still those kinds of jobs to be had. They're just -- they're not as abundant. And they're not as dependable. You know, they come and go. But if you drive through Baltimore, you'll see there are still construction sites. There are road repairs being done. If you need your electricity upgraded, you've got plenty of folks to call. Small jobbers who'll come in and help you out. What we find interestingly enough, and we talked about Earned Income Tax Credits and the like, is that you first have to have an income to be earned.

  • 12:19:17

    ALEXANDERAnd it's very striking. One of the things we were able to do in this book that is uncommon is to compare the experiences of whites of working class backgrounds with African-Americans of working class backgrounds, who are very different -- very similar family and neighborhood conditions when they were growing up as first graders through the elementary school years. But as young adults, the whites of working class background were vastly better off, in terms of their employment histories and employment prospects than the African-Americans.

  • 12:19:42

    ALEXANDERAnd in some very striking ways. At age 28, 45 percent of whites of working -- white men of working class background, were employed in the industrial and skilled construction and industrial crafts. And, as opposed to 15 percent of African-American men, of like background, working in that sector of the economy. And the whites were earning twice what the African-American men were earning, who were working in that sector. So...

  • 12:20:06

    NNAMDIWhat accounts for that difference? Is it because, as a friend of mine used to say, they have the complexion to make the connection?

  • 12:20:12

    ALEXANDERWell, I think complexion is very much involved, but it goes -- it's deeper than that. When we talk to this group of youngsters aged 22 and we asked how they found their current job, whites were much more often said through family and friends.

  • 12:20:28


  • 12:20:29

    ALEXANDERAfrican-Americans on their own.

  • 12:20:31

    NNAMDIThat's the connection.

  • 12:20:31

    ALEXANDERYeah. And at age -- and in high school, when we asked about their part-time work during the school year and summer employment, a fifth of white men of working class background were working in the industrial and construction crafts and trades. Now, they weren't welders and electricians and auto mechanics, they were helping a brother, an uncle or a neighbor from across the street who could provide entrée into this kind of employment.

  • 12:20:55

    ALEXANDERNot a single African-American man of the same kind of family background was work -- had employment in the industrial and skill crafts, so there's long history that traces back not just in terms of the current generation, but we believe it reaches all the way back to the industrial boom time of the World War II and beyond when -- the literature refers to this as the advantages of a blue collar elite because of those high pay steady work, often unionized.

  • 12:21:25

    ALEXANDERAfrican-Americans who are present on the docks and in the auto assembly plants and the steel mills, but they were relegated to low wage dirty work, often outside of unions. And those positions were essentially the preserve of the white working class. And the experiences that we've tracked through the age 28 of our study participants, they're only two generations removed from that period when there was a vibrant industrial economy in Baltimore.

  • 12:21:56

    ALEXANDERAnd through social networks and personal ties, we think that -- we think it's the case that the whites have much greater to that kind of employment. And what we see when we look over their employment history is that every -- at every touch point of a white man having advantage over African-American men, not just in the sector of employment but also in terms of working full time, in shorter periods of unemployment, in shorter spells of unemployment and drawing higher wages.

  • 12:22:23

    NNAMDIWe asked members of our audience to call in at 800-433-8850. And one of the questions we ask is did you grow up poor? How did you affect your life as an adult? I think that's a question that Rachel in Alexandria would like to answer. Rachel, you're on the air, go ahead please.

  • 12:22:38

    RACHELHi. This is such an intriguing topic to me because it's something that I personally dealt with over my lifetime. And I'm actually 25 years old, so I kind of fit into the category that you're speaking on right now and the research that was done. And I did grow up fairly poor. I grew up in public housing, but my mother took us out into -- it was a very specialized public housing space in a more -- in a better off neighborhood than in the inner city.

  • 12:23:08

    RACHELWe were out in the suburbs. And although we were a public housing family, the kids in the school I went to knew that and they would call, you know, our neighborhood the ghetto of the suburbs. And I am an African-American female, and so I was one of the only black girls in my community for a very long time. And so, I always had that understanding -- the underlying understanding of my difference with the people that I was going to school with.

  • 12:23:34

    RACHELAnd also the understanding that I was a lot poorer than the people that I was growing up with. But in my memory, I remember realizing that my mother wasn't able to give me the opportunities that my friends' were able to give them. And my mom worked really hard to make sure that I was able to get some of those opportunities, where she would put me into every program possible. And once I got to high school, she asked me where I wanted to go to school.

  • 12:23:59

    RACHELAnd I was able to get a scholarship into one of the private schools in the city. And I just remember very, very conscious and aware that I didn't have the opportunities that everyone else had and I would have to work extra to get them. And...

  • 12:24:13

    NNAMDIAnd what are you doing now?

  • 12:24:15

    RACHELNow I moved here to Washington, D.C. and I'm entrepreneur. I started a business of my own. And I take great pride as being able to provide job opportunities to people who work hard despite their situations.

  • 12:24:29


  • 12:24:29

    RACHELAnd I'm at a place where I'm making more money than my mother is currently or was when she was my age. And it is a very humbling experience to grow up in poverty and get to a place where you know that you made your way there and you can be settled.

  • 12:24:45

    NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that story with us. Isabel Sawhill, what stands out about that story for you?

  • 12:24:51

    SAWHILLI think that's a very inspiring story. It seems like there is some upward mobility in the United States still. No question that if you're African-American, it tougher. No question that if you come from a disadvantaged background, it's going to affect your sense of self-confidence and ability to relate and feel as if you belong, especially when you're young and when you're a teenager.

  • 12:25:20

    SAWHILLAnd I think Rachel, I think was her name, is explaining or describing all of that very well. What we find is that success is a cumulative process. If, for example, you are successful in early childhood, then you're twice as likely to be successful as an adolescent. So those early experiences matter a lot. And it sounds like Rachel had a mom who understood that and did everything she could to give Rachel lots of opportunities.

  • 12:25:56

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. If you've called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. If you'd like to, the number is 800-433-8850. How does childhood poverty affect the person's ability to climb the economic ladder in your view? You can also send email to or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:28:13

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Karl Alexander, academy professor and research professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of the study, "The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth and the Transition to Adulthood." He's joined in studio by Jenny Reed, policy director with the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. Joining us by phone is Isabel Sawhill, senior fellow in economic studies and co-director of the Center on Children and Family at the Brookings Institution.

  • 12:28:40

    NNAMDIWe welcome your calls at 800-433-8850. Jenny, Karl was talking about the difference between the job situation in Baltimore in the early 1980s and what happens shortly after that. Was there or is there a parallel economic story in D.C. with the erosion of jobs that do not require a college education?

  • 12:29:01

    REEDThat's a great point, Kojo. So what we've seen here in the District is that every year we seem to have an increasingly more competitive job market where it's just harder and harder to get a job here if you don't have a bachelor's degree.

  • 12:29:14

    REEDAnd we're finding that even amongst those jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree, maybe a lot of those jobs that were created by the federal government, where a lot of people could move to the middle class, even though they don't require a bachelor's degree, people are still filling them who have a bachelor's degree. So it's getting much harder to find a job now that pays enough money that you can support a family on unless you have that college education.

  • 12:29:40

    NNAMDIKarl, there's a popular narrative in American culture that our caller Rachel referred to that says education is the key to economic prosperity and is available to all. But you found striking numbers that show that the educational path to prosperity is not an option for everyone. How did your Baltimore students fare in school?

  • 12:30:02

    ALEXANDERWell, Rachel's story actually exemplifies a very important reality, which is to say that we as -- we look at patterns and trends and those are quite real. And we need to try to -- we need to understand their implications. But there always are exceptions to patterns and trends and we want to be mindful of that also. And it is the case that children of disadvantaged background who do well in school, and there are many of them, reap the benefits of that.

  • 12:30:30

    ALEXANDERThey continue on and they go to college and they're able to see that through to a successful conclusion and they have the advantages in the job market that come with a college degree. But they're vastly fewer in number than children with middle class background who make it into and through college successful. We find, for example, picking up on one of the particulars that Isabel mentioned in terms of the cumulative advantages and disadvantage.

  • 12:30:57

    ALEXANDERIn the fall first grade when our study began, the typical disadvantaged child is scoring a half grade level behind the typical advantaged child in terms of reading comprehension. That's at the fall of first grade, right out of the gate. By the end of fifth grade, that half a grade equivalent disparity had exploded to fully five grade equivalents, which means that a disadvantaged child might be scoring -- when it's time to move on to middle school from the elementary school years, might be reading at the third or fourth grade. An advanced child might be reading at the sixth or seventh grade level.

  • 12:31:29

    NNAMDILet me interrupt with an email we got from Mary in Arlington who says, "Many of the interventions that made the biggest difference in children's long-term outcomes must take place during pregnancy and between ages zero and five. How can we do this more effectively without being intrusive in the families?"

  • 12:31:44

    ALEXANDERWell, that's actually a very probing question because, historically, we felt -- we, as a country, have been much more comfortable intervening in schools because schools are in the public domain. We collectively own our schools and we can do things to them that we think could be advantageous for our children. We don't own families. Family is -- that's a private sphere and it's much harder to intervene in family life, both as a moral imperative but also as a public policy issue.

  • 12:32:12

    ALEXANDERBut there are things that can be done and have proven to be successful. So for one being to expand preschool educational opportunities and it's very well established that a strong preschool experience reaps benefits into the school years and ones -- and benefits that last over the entire education experience and beyond. So there are mechanisms, levers that are accessible through public policy that can be put to good use in helping disadvantaged parents do the things that they very much want to do for their children by and large.

  • 12:32:49

    NNAMDIAnd the...

  • 12:32:50

    ALEXANDERHelp them be successful.

  • 12:32:51

    NNAMDIIsabel Sawhill, you've got a paper coming out soon that suggests that early and regular intervention can go a long way to getting disadvantaged kids ready for school and helping them finish their education. How can we do that?

  • 12:33:03

    SAWHILLWell, that's right. What the paper will show -- it's being released tomorrow -- is that if you intervene early and often and continuously through a disadvantaged child's life, you can close 70 percent of the gap in adult incomes between the children born into advantaged versus less advantaged families. And the kinds of interventions that we looked at included a home visiting program, a parenting program when the children are still infants and toddlers, helping the parents do a better job of interacting with their children and helping them access to resources they need for raising a very young child successfully.

  • 12:33:58

    SAWHILLIt also includes effective, high quality, early childhood education at age three or four because, as Karl said, by the time they get to first grade, there are already big gaps. And then it includes a successful reading program for elementary school children that's found to really improve reading scores. And then it includes a high school dropout prevention program. And all of these programs that we looked at have been rigorously evaluated using trials where you have an experimental group and a control group just as you would in medicine to discern which programs work and which don't.

  • 12:34:41

    SAWHILLSo we feel pretty confident that these rather optimistic findings could actually come to pass if we could find the political will in the United States to fund these programs. Right now, they are not funded at scale. Some of them are operating on a, you know, very small-scale or experimental basis. But we need a lot more of those kinds of programs. We also need to focus on the circumstances of a child's birth.

  • 12:35:11

    SAWHILLAnd whether or not they're being born to parents who are really mature enough and ready to be good parents. We have too many children being born to teenagers and to other parents who aren't really ready for parenthood.

  • 12:35:28

    NNAMDIWhat do we do about that?

  • 12:35:31

    SAWHILLWell, I think we need to, first, get the word out that raising a child is a very difficult job and not something that should be undertaken lightly. And secondly, to, you know, if you want to plan your childbearing, you need to either not have sex or if you're having sex you need to use effective forms of contraception. And we have a whole political debate about that as well, as you know.

  • 12:36:02

    NNAMDIYeah. On to Lynn in Woodbridge, VA. A lot of people want to join this conversation. Lynn, it is your turn.

  • 12:36:09

    LYNNGood afternoon. I just wanted to make a comment because your first caller, Rachel, I think, her name was. She's an African-American female who experienced poverty. But I'm an African-American female who grew up in a fairly middle class family. My mother was in the military. I never had any issues. But my mother didn't really have the tools, as you guys were speaking about earlier, like the financial tools to plan for college or to, I guess, teach me what kind of things that I needed to go into.

  • 12:36:44

    LYNNSo there was a disconnect between when I graduated high school and when -- what I wanted to do afterwards. So I didn't really know to get into college or do anything like that. And even though, like I said, I had a middle class background, now I'm 26 and it's very hard. I make, like, $11 an hour and, you know, I just didn't have that support system that you guys were talking about.

  • 12:37:08

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Karl, another employment option is skilled labor. What did you find in terms of people who didn't go to college like our caller Lynn but found solid jobs in the trades or in the industrial sector?

  • 12:37:21

    ALEXANDERWell, that -- so in the book there are these two success narratives and they both come across quite clearly in the experiences of these -- of our study participants. One is doing well by doing well in school and taking advantage of the opportunities that that opens up. The other success narrative is realized almost exclusively by those who don't go to college and it has to do with finding steady work, well-paying steady in the non-college labor market.

  • 12:37:48

    ALEXANDERAnd as I mentioned, there's a strong social patterning to who has those opportunities. My earlier comments focused on the advantages of white working-class men over working class African-Americans. But there's also another side to the gender story. Women of working class background, African-American and white still are today, at least in the experiences of our study participants, are concentrated almost entirely in the low wage traditional pink power sectors of employment.

  • 12:38:19

    ALEXANDERThe service and clerical sectors. So they're not really finding their way to the kinds of positions that will help them move up in life and achieve a comfortable standard of living. There is a difference, though, in the experiences of the white and African-American women. And this actually harkens back to some of the work that Isabel Sawhill has published previously.

  • 12:38:43

    ALEXANDERShe mentions in one of her articles that women have a second option for achieving the comfortable standard of living, beyond doing it on their own wherewithal, and that's marrying well. And what we find is that when we look at the experiences of white and African-American women of working class or low income background, the percentages that are become teen mothers, mothers as teenagers is quite comparable African-Americans and whites.

  • 12:39:10

    ALEXANDERBut the circumstances of their parenting is very different. The white women are much more likely to be parenting with a spouse, or if not a spouse a steady, long-term live-in partner, we screen on partnerships of at least three months duration. And those women have the advantage of a second earner in the household, that is a spouse or partner. Or, under some circumstances, a solo earner that is the husband or partner who has a high -- has a well-paying job.

  • 12:39:36

    ALEXANDERAfrican-American women are much more likely to be parenting alone. And in parenting alone, they're much more likely to experience the feminization of poverty. It's a well-known, kind of national phenomenon.

  • 12:39:46

    NNAMDIJenny, Rachel made the observation that even though she grew up in public housing, the public housing was not in the inner city, it was in the suburbs in which you would have considered a better neighborhood. What role do housing and the characteristics of a neighborhood play in people's ability to move up the economic ladder?

  • 12:40:03

    REEDWell, that's a great question, Kojo. Housing in the neighborhood play a really big role in how you grow up and, sort of, the impacts of poverty on your life. So, for example, a lot of low income families tend to live in poor housing stock. This housing stock has mold and roaches and rodents and maybe lead. And so the kids are exposed to this at a very young age and it really affects their physical health. So, for example, the kids tend to have higher rates in severity of asthma which makes it more likely that they're gonna miss days of school and they're gonna fall behind.

  • 12:40:36

    REEDSo building high quality, affordable housing and giving low income families access to it, not only helps alleviate the financial burden, but also the burden of the poor conditions. In addition, the neighborhood you live in has a big impact. So a lot of low income neighborhoods don't have access to good educational and development opportunities for young kids or there's a lot of violence. And the kids feel unsafe, not only being at home but trying to walk to school. And that leads to a lot of stress in their lives which also has a negative impact on their ability to do well in school.

  • 12:41:09

    NNAMDIHere now is Eric in Vienna, Va. Eric, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:41:13

    ERICHi, thanks for taking my call. So I'd like to revisit something that Ms. Sawhill actually advocated back, during the 1994 Welfare reform, when she was advising President Clinton, she said that, in order to make work pay, we must make childcare affordable so that working class parents are able to go to work rather then stay at home with their children.

  • 12:41:34

    ERICLast year, one of my friends was working at the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute in Baltimore. And she found that, in Maryland and across the country, a year of quality childcare is actually more expensive then a years tuition at a state university. So we really need to make work pay so that parents can hold a job and not be in poverty.

  • 12:41:54

    NNAMDIHas the situation changed significantly since 1994, Isabel Sawhill?

  • 12:41:59

    SAWHILLI don't think so. I'm afraid that, if anything, the story is going in the opposite direction. In other words, because of our budget difficulties and the sequester, so-called sequester that's reducing the federal budget, there's gonna be less money for childcare, for low income or working class parents. And as Eric suggested, nothing could be more critical, especially if you are a single mom trying to raise children and hold a job at the same time. The expense of childcare can eat up a huge amount of your earnings, typically, maybe a quarter or more, at least.

  • 12:42:47

    SAWHILLAnd many low income working moms have to rely on lower quality childcare, maybe having a neighbor or a relative take care of the children and that's not ideal either. I also want to go back to something that Karl said about the importance of having two parents in the household. Lets suppose you're making a low wage job which unfortunately is gonna be, probably, the case for quite a while. If you're making $10 an hour, that's maybe $20,000, roughly, a year. But if you have two $20,000 incomes, that's $40,000 a year. And that can make a huge difference.

  • 12:43:28

    SAWHILLSo I think it's really important that we get the message out to young people, that it's really good if you can figure out whether you've found someone that you want to have a long-term, continuous relationship with, possibly married but even if you don't, stick with for the longer term, 'cause otherwise it's gonna be really tough to raise children, on your own.

  • 12:43:51

    NNAMDIAnd, Jenny Reed, then we gotta take a break.

  • 12:43:53

    REEDOn the childcare piece, you know, access to high quality childcare is a big issue here in the District. We do subsidize childcare for a lot of low income working parents. But you have to wait in really long lines just to get the assistance. And then the available slots, they're not just -- they're not there. So parents end up having to take, maybe, two, three buses across town and spend hours just trying to get their kids into a high quality provider. Something we could do here in D.C. is increase the reimbursement rates for the childcare providers.

  • 12:44:23

    REEDThey're really far below what they need to be. We've taken some steps and increase them in the past few years. But if we increase those reimbursement rates, we'll have more high quality providers throughout the city.

  • 12:44:34

    NNAMDIGotta take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation and take your calls at 800-433-8850. What can or should the government do to help families living in poverty, 800-433-8850? If the lines are busy, send us an email to or a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:46:49

    NNAMDIWell, welcome back, we're discussing the long shadow of poverty with Isabel Sawhill, senior fellow, Economic Studies and co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution. Jenny Reed is policy director at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. And Karl Alexander is a academy professor and research professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University. He is co-author of the book, "The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth and the Transition to Adulthood."

  • 12:47:15

    NNAMDIWe're talking early about neighborhoods. And, Karl, you found that some of Baltimore's racially segregated neighborhoods can look the same on paper in terms of household income, in terms of parents education levels but can be very different in terms of the advantages they afford their residents. How were white and black neighborhoods different and how did they -- or how did that factor effect upward mobility?

  • 12:47:38

    ALEXANDERYeah, there are some very striking difference. But let me just step back a bit.

  • 12:47:41


  • 12:47:42

    ALEXANDERBefore I get to that. So our focus, in the book, is the -- what we think of is the three institutional settings that are most consequential for children's development, the family, the neighborhood and the school. And we understand that growing up in a poor family is disadvantaging in all sorts of ways. And living in a high poverty neighborhood has consequences and also attending a school where the enrollment is predominately high poverty. It turns out, that for many of our young people, they experience all three of these disadvantages, they're (word?) disadvantaged. It's not just one or the other but all three.

  • 12:48:14

    ALEXANDERAnd that really does challenge young people and their parents in helping -- in who want to help them launch successfully. With respect to the neighborhood, what we find is that they're really quite striking difference between working class African-American neighborhoods and working class white neighborhoods, which are substantially segregated. In places like Baltimore, I think it's well understood that there are middle class and higher income residential enclaves. I think everyone's familiar with those. We tend to lose sight of the fact that there are working class residential enclaves.

  • 12:48:42

    ALEXANDERAnd in Baltimore those are longstanding. And what we see is that, when we compare census data, for example, on the neighborhood characteristics of the children in our study, as first graders, the socioeconomic profiles of the working class African-American and white neighborhoods are practically interchangeable. High poverty, low median family income. You can go through the entire list, they're practically interchangeable. But there are large differences. The African and -- crime rates in the African-American neighborhoods are vastly higher then crime rates in the white neighborhoods.

  • 12:49:14

    ALEXANDEREven neighborhoods that are comparable in terms of their socioeconomic profiles and through residential surveys from around the same time, we know that sense of community and community attachment is also much stronger, in the white working class neighborhoods and the African-American neighborhoods. And this has consequences. And so it's well understood in the literature today, that not all poor neighborhoods are equally disadvantaged or equally distressed.

  • 12:49:37

    ALEXANDERAnd what we see is that, the African-American working class or low income neighborhoods in Baltimore were much -- are much more distressed, evidence much greater signs of distress at the community level then through the white neighborhoods. And we think we have a way of making sense of that. It has to do -- it's a complicated story about urban renewal and urban renewal displacements, about the still lingering aftereffects of the urban unrested -- surrounding Martin Luther King's assassination, which were concentrated in low income African-American neighborhoods.

  • 12:50:10

    ALEXANDEROn the order of 300 small businesses, we're shuttered and closed down and many of them never reopened. And there's also the experiences of, I mentioned the feminization of poverty, it's well known that single parenting -- single parents are much more mobile residentially then two parent households. And what we find is that the rate of single parenting in the experiences of our study participants, it's much higher among the African-Americans then whites. And so they move that more often. A function of economic marginal, marginality, they might be evicted, they might have to double up with an Aunt or a Grandmother.

  • 12:50:42

    ALEXANDERBut they move around much more often. We find that working class whites, when we compare their place of residence in first grade and fifth grade, they're much more likely to be in residing in the same location, working class whites, over the five years of elementary school, then are working class African-Americans. They move around -- the working class African-Americans are much more mobile residentially. And all that, put together, has the effect of, kind of, fracturing a strong sense of community. And that has very real consequences.

  • 12:51:11

    NNAMDIHere's Jane in Washington, D.C. Jane, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:51:16

    JANEThank you for this wonderful show. I would like to point out, I think that there's some socialization issues that are really important. And I'll make four observations, from my own experience. I was fortunate, I grew up privileged and I realized how much I learned from my parents. The first is when I was a manager and I was actively recruiting for diversity. And I had two interviewees. The first woman I actually hired and I told her later that I almost didn't hire her because I couldn’t get her to make eye contact with me during the interview.

  • 12:51:48

    JANEAnd she was very surprised at this and didn't realize she was doing it. And said, Oh, I well I had been taught not to make eye contact with my superiors. Maybe that was it. The second was, I interviewed a very smart young man who, as it turned out, in the interview, I found that he had been captain of his university basketball team, junior and senior years. And he didn't have it on his -- and this was a Michigan State or something. And he didn't have it on his resume. And I asked him, why don't you have this there?

  • 12:52:16

    JANEAnd he says, well I don't understand why -- I don't know why anybody would care about that. And I explained the leadership issues. And the -- the last one is that I mentor a little boy, here in D.C., who is a wonderful little kid but he's clearly ADHD and has some deep reading problems. And he's in third grade and, you know, the school clearly -- that the teachers have to know this and having dealt with the system myself, this -- the school system doesn't reach out and help these kids. And as a result, he cannot learning to read. He doesn't -- he has, sort of, a colloquial, kind of, English at home.

  • 12:52:51

    JANEAnd it's very hard to teach him how to sound out words or to, you know, a good sentence, when that's not what he's getting at home. And he's not getting the special ed that he needs. So thank you.

  • 12:53:01

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Isabel Sawhill, this raises an issue that has been in the background throughout this conversation. That even as we're having it, there's a parallel conversation that says, teachers are the ones who will make the difference in the lives of all of these poor children. It's really not as much about the neighborhoods as about the quality of teaching in their schools. What do you say?

  • 12:53:24

    SAWHILLI think that the research that's been done by experts on education has shown very, very clearly that the quality of the teacher in the classroom is the biggest factor determining how a child does once they're in school. Although I would want to say that Jane's comment about family socialization are also very important and we have to remember, again, that these kids come to school with very different family backgrounds. And if you grow up in a better educated family, you are gonna of heard many more words spoken, you're gonna have been exposed to all kinds of experiences that less advantaged children haven't had.

  • 12:54:15

    SAWHILLAnd that makes a huge difference and it means that, when you get to school, you're already behind and that puts a lot of burden on schools and on teachers, in particular, to deal with these problems that occur outside of school.

  • 12:54:32

    NNAMDIJenny Reed.

  • 12:54:34

    REEDYou know, I think, having a quality teacher is really important. But I also think that poverty plays a big role in how well kids are able to do in school, right. If they're coming to school hungry, malnourished, if they have chronic asthma, if they're moving around a lot because they're family's homeless, you can have the best teacher in the world but it's still gonna be hard for you to sit and pay attention and learn that day. So I also think the school needs to focus on having the supports in place to help these kids who are showing up, maybe, not with all the supports and all the resources that they need.

  • 12:55:07

    REEDAnd we at, DCFPI, have actually been looking at some programs that schools can make sure to have in place to support, you know, our students who are homeless, for example. Right now we only spend about $34 per homeless student in services. We could expanding that to make sure that they're getting the kind of supports they need to get to school everyday and to learn.

  • 12:55:29

    NNAMDIJob training is another piece of this equation, especially for people who don't go to or graduate from college. What are the options available in our area?

  • 12:55:37

    REEDSo job training is a really important issue. It's also, I think, one of the programs that's really difficult to get done right. In D.C., we've been making a lot improvements recently. So we've really boosted our workforce investment council which is bringing business leaders, job trainers, labor, all together to try to figure out where the District should invest its time and resources. What sort of jobs and careers they should be preparing people for. We also have a workforce intermediary which you can think of as, like, a matchmaker.

  • 12:56:08

    REEDRight, they're supposed to take D.C. residents who need jobs and, say, a developer who's building the convention center and put them together to make sure that people who need jobs are able to fill them. The problem is though that some of our employment programs really aren't demonstrating a lot of success.

  • 12:56:26

    REEDSo our One Stop Centers, there's a lot of concern about whether or not those are actually providing skills people need to get a job. Our Transitional Employment Program, there's a lot of questions raised about effective that is. So it's an area that's extremely important but it's also one that we need to do a better job at tracking outcomes and making sure that people are actually getting jobs, as a result.

  • 12:56:46

    NNAMDIKarl, in about the minute or so we have left, what's the take away message for you, from this two decade research project? Some disadvantaged students managed to succeed but a lot of them didn't.

  • 12:56:56

    ALEXANDERYeah, I think there are two take away messages, at least one focused on schools and the other on the workplace. And -- but at some level, it's the same message that has to do with family advantage and family privilege. And that's very real in the lives of our young children. So family advantage, when it comes to doing well in school, is associated with the middle class family circumstances and their children are much more successful then working class and low income families in schools.

  • 12:57:21

    ALEXANDERSo we do wonder if -- try to do what we can to open up additional opportunities for poor children to be successful in school. And Isabel has mentioned the need for continuous and ongoing supports and I would endorse that. But working class families also have resources to bring to bear to help their children.

  • 12:57:36

    ALEXANDERAnd in the experiences of our study youngsters, it's -- those resources are deployed in helping their children find -- find their way to good paying, steady work. And that's managed informally which makes it much harder to think in terms of public policy interventions that could open those doors. No one can fault parents for wanting to help their children. And middle class and working class parents alike, both do the best they can by their kids.

  • 12:57:59

    NNAMDIKarl Alexander is academy professor and research professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, co-author of "The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood." Jenny Reed is policy director at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. And Isabel Sawhill is senior fellow economic studies and co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution. Thank you all for joining us and thank you all for listening, I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:58:27

    NNAMDIComing up tomorrow on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," the predictive powers of data. Tech Tuesday ventures into a future where people, not companies, use data to anticipate everything from weather to health to love. Then at 1:00, local author, Susan Coll, her new novel explores real estate and relationships in the Washington suburbs. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," noon till 2:00 tomorrow, on WAMU 88.5 and streaming at

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