"The Dickensian Aspect": Persistent Poverty and Inequality

A twenty-four year sociological study shows that there are distinct advantages to being white and poor over being black and poor.
Appears in Winter 2014 Issue: Redeeming Conservatism
December 1 st 2014
The Long Shadowby Karl Alexander, Doris Entwistle, and Linda Olson. Russell Sage Foundation, HarperCollins, 2014. 300pp.

In the first scene of the second season of HBO's The Wire, two police officers patrol Baltimore's harbour. The background betrays the fraying of a manufacturing economy: half-sunk wreckages, shuttered factories, and dormant dock cranes. The two officers discuss the jobs that relatives used to have at places like Bethlehem Steel. Their boat glides past the hibernating mammoth of the grain terminal (at its height it handled 3.8 billion bushels of grain every year)— not knowing that on that very site there will soon be luxury condos both in the fictional world of The Wire and in reality (search the terms "Silo Point" and "unparalleled luxury" to see how once-productive space can be seductively repurposed for the exclusive enjoyment of the upper class). This one scene portends all matter of socioeconomic fallout to follow for the marginalized characters of Baltimore left behind in forgotten neighbourhoods while the Inner Harbour serves as a playground for elites and tourists. In less than ninety seconds, David Simon, creator of The Wire, has offered a glimpse of some of the complex socio-economic processes that haunt the lower socio-economic classes of numerous rust belt cities.

While Simon paints a brief, allusive picture of the institutional pathologies that have undermined places like Baltimore, the authors of The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood (New York: Sage, 2014), provide a post-mortem autopsy on the city and the notion of socioeconomic mobility in these contexts. Sociologists Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle (deceased shortly before publication), and Linda Olson marshal data from over two decades of collection and offer a detailed analysis of the multi-faceted roots of urban poverty and inequality. Beyond that, they attempt to explain the seemingly persistent reproduction of disadvantage.

To do so, The Long Shadow utilizes the longitudinal Baltimore Beginning School Study Youth Panel (BSSYP). Initiated in 1982, the study followed 790 students from first grade through the next twenty-four years of their lives as they transitioned through childhood, adolescence, and into young adulthood. The rich, longitudinal nature of the BSSYP offers a definitive examination of the role of family and neighbourhood in perpetuating poverty in Baltimore.

The authors found that, for better and worse, participating children were launched into fairly unwavering trajectories very early in life. Where, and to whom, these children happened to be born functioned as stunningly accurate predictors of their socioeconomic status in twenty-five years. In that way, The Long Shadow echoes the claim made by Patrick Sharkey in Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress Toward Racial Equality: that the disinvestment and white flight from these places have created a "legacy of disadvantage." In other words, being born into and raised in these high-poverty neighbourhoods has influence that persists into adulthood and will, eventually, likely be transmitted again to the following generation.

Of course, the localized, case-study nature of the BSSYP somewhat mitigates the ability to make sweeping generalizations regarding urban poverty in North America. However, because Baltimore retains pockets of white poverty, it is a particularly unique and provocative site of analysis. The authors note that, though recent studies indicate poor whites outnumber poor African Americans by about eight million in the United States, white poverty remains both less documented and less stigmatized. The manifestation of white and African American poverty in close context in Baltimore allows for fertile points of comparison.

The fact that this study included both white and African American children who were born and raised in similarly impoverished neighbourhoods, and then tracked for almost a quarter of a century, allows for the opportunity to discern whether and how race impacts socioeconomic mobility. And according to The Long Shadow, it does—a lot. As the authors followed the lives of the participants, African American men tended to have much higher levels of unemployment when compared with white men from similar socioeconomic status—despite the fact that studies indicate African American men spend significantly more time looking for work than do white men. How do we account for this? Alexander et al. offer a challenging answer: the existence of what sociologists call "weak ties"—loose but wide networks among whites that cultivate connections to the remaining blue-collar industries in the city. Basically, this is when someone is hired for a job because a friend of a friend is a manager or foreman or what have you. In contrast, African American men have "tighter" but also smaller networks of social capital to draw on. The wider network amounts to a form of social capital for whites that can be leveraged for employment: "White working class privilege among the Baltimore sample comes about through access to good employment opportunities that are contextually and historically embedded, and that date back at least to the World War II mobilization, when the sample's parents and grandparents were coming of age." In other words, the white participants in the BSSYP benefitted from an unearned racial advantage in finding work.

The Long Shadow delivers a riposte to those who discuss inequality through the now heavily cloaked language of the culture of poverty thesis. The comments of U.S. Representative from Wisconsin, Paul Ryan, typify the argument: "We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work. There is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with." That is, Ryan and scholars like Charles Murray continue to assert that persistent poverty has more to do with subcultural perpetuation than institutional discrimination and inequitable opportunity. In the murk of The Long Shadow of a disadvantaged urban childhood, though, it remains difficult to make claims about who is and is not working hard enough: in Baltimore and numerous other rust-belt cities the spatial mis-match of work leaving the same areas in which so many impoverished families and individuals found themselves relegated— not culturally based pathologies— functioned as the antecedent to chronic un- and underemployment.

Beyond that, the evidence from The Long Shadow points to a causation arrow that sees family instability as a result of poverty, not vice versa. For evidence, the authors note that when compared with cities like Baltimore, societies with robust social safety nets (they cite universal health care and child-care subsidies by way of example) see diminished adverse child outcomes associated with single parenting. Of course, the authors also note that the cycle of poverty frequently becomes complex and self-perpetuating; they quote columnist E.J. Dionne: "Economic inequality is breeding family instability even as family instability is breeding economic inequality."

Alexander et al. rightly discuss failing broader regional economies, family disadvantage, racialization, feminization of poverty, inequitable access to quality education, and impoverished neighbourhoods as crucial elements that darken the forgotten corners of the American experience. Missing, however, from The Long Shadow is any discussion of the role of churches or congregations in the lives of the children included in the BSSYP. Though not an atypical blind spot for many sociologists, the omission from consideration here seems especially egregious. Knowing more about the potential role of congregations in the lives of these children would add texture to the analysis—especially regarding findings about weak ties and social capital. The majority of the students included in the BSSYP identified as African American. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, African Americans report markedly higher levels of religiosity when compared to the U.S. population as a whole. With that in mind, the role of congregations in African American urban life must not be dismissed summarily. The work of scholars ranging from Ram Cnaan to Nancy Ammerman to Robert Putnam clearly indicates the crucial role of congregations in social service delivery and the development of social capital. Though it's probably best to only make modest claims about what congregations actually do for their surrounding neighbourhoods, we also know that the diffuse internal networks of churches still have implications for the lives of attenders.

This raises two different sets of questions. On the one hand, as we continue to try to understand the dynamics of poverty, its perpetuation, and how people can emerge from it, it would be helpful for sociologists to consider more fine-grained analysis that might help us see if those African-Americans involved in congregations benefit from their networks and social capital, providing wider social networks to leverage for employment opportunity. On the other hand, motivation for such analysis might be undercut by a second suspicion: that insofar as white monopolies tend to control union and the trades, and many businesses are run by whites, the "weak ties" offered by African American congregations wouldn't likely pierce the buttresses of white privilege.

But even without the church as a variable of analysis, The Long Shadow delivers a sobering account of the sources of entrenched poverty in the urban context. Such a scenario weighs heavily. Too often, dispiriting studies such as The Long Shadow are epitomized by the following scene from (again) The Wire:

Dr. David Parenti (professor studying education in Baltimore public schools, describing academia): "We get the grant, we study the problem, we propose solutions. If they listen, they listen. If they don't, it still makes for great research. What we publish on this is gonna get a lot of attention."

Bunny Colvin (retired police officer consulting on the research): "From who?"

Dr. David Parenti: "From other researchers, academics."

Bunny Colvin: "Academics?! What, they gonn' study your study? [chuckles and shakes head] When do this shit change?"

To truly confront the reproduction of poverty, as documented in The Long Shadow, there must be multi-pronged efforts that address institutionalized injustice. The volume considered here offers the invaluable step of critically illuminating the sources of persistent poverty and, moreover, lays waste to the notion of a culture of poverty as a primary precursor to low socioeconomic standing. With that in mind, the authors claim that until African American men have better access to quality employment, programs that encourage marriage to alleviate poverty have tremendously poor prospects (see the Bush administration's Healthy Marriage Initiative). In addition, The Long Shadow elucidates the need for aggressive, systematic educational reform that includes support for meaningful integration across socio-economic class, consistent and quality summer school and preschool, and parental involvement initiatives (to name a few). And, of course, a stronger social safety net would likely alleviate the vulnerability of children born into precariousness of poverty. In short, with the insight offered by Alexander et al., it remains incumbent for those seeking the welfare of all who live in the city to continue to agitate for policy that requires sustained investment in urban neighbourhoods.


Dr. Mark Mulder, professor of sociology, teaches classes ranging from Church and Society to Urban Sociology to Diversity and Inequality and is director of the urban studies minor at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the author of Shades of White Flight (Rutgers University Press) and co-author of Latino Protestants in America: Diverse and Growing (Rowman & Littlefield). His research finds focus at the intersection of cities and congregations.