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1 Chapter 1 |  “Different Privileges That Different People Inherit”: Social Reproduction and the Transition to Adulthood One important, long-­ held American belief is that the family a child is born into does not determine her destiny. Yet increasingly, social science has called that core belief into question. Economists show that the rate of intergenerational mobility in the United States is surprisingly low compared to other wealthy countries.1 Parents’ socioeconomic status is not the only thing holding children back—race matters too. If a child is born black and poor, for example, her chances of ending up in poverty as an adult are one and a half times higher than they are for her white counterpart from a poor family.2 Figuring out why the American Dream is so far out of reach for some has been social science’s focus for decades. In 1982, Karl Alexander and Doris Entwisle set out to explore how children adjusted to their first years of schooling. What began as a modest study of early elementary school students ended up as a groundbreaking twenty-­ five-­ year look at the relative importance of family background and schooling in the lives of urban children. The Beginning School Study enrolled about eight hundred young black and white children and their parents from twenty elementary schools in Baltimore and followed them through age thirty, surveying them repeatedly and collecting data on their schools, teachers, test scores, and grades. Three decades later, their 2014 book (with Linda Olson), The Long Shadow, offered an answer to the question that scholars have long posed: who gets ahead?3 Although variation in some aspects of their schooling did contribute to children’s outcomes at age thirty, parents’ income and race yielded a much more dramatic effect. 2      Coming of Age in the Other America As Alexander put it, “The implication is where you start out in life is where you end up.”4 The Long Shadow shows that while 45 percent of children with higher-­ income parents ended up with college degrees, only 4 percent of those with poor parents did. At age twenty-­ two, 89 percent of white high school dropouts were employed, compared to fewer than half that figure—40 percent—of blacks without a high school degree. White men from poor backgrounds had the lowest rate of college attendance and completion of any group, yet they fared better than their black counterparts because more had access to lucrative blue-­collar jobs through their social networks. The industrial and construction sectors employed 45 percent of white men in the study, but only 15 percent of black males. Even among those in these working-­ class jobs, white men’s earnings were nearly twice those of African American men.5 This isn’t just a Baltimore story. Other scholars have shown that Alexander and Entwisle’s results, while stark, have been reflected nationwide over the last thirty years. Family background and a history of racially discriminatory housing policies have continued to yield a strong influence on where children end up in life, and being born poor and black suppresses life chances to a frightening degree.6 Despite these sobering findings, we argue that social reproduction— children ending up “stuck” in the same place as their parents—is far from inevitable. We show that social policy has the power to interrupt the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage, and that when it does, children ’s trajectories can change dramatically. Young people’s agency matters too. Even those coming from some of the most challenging situations can reach toward a brighter future if they manage to take hold of key resources that confer meaning and identity—a strong sense of what they are “about” and not about. Yet this book also shows that, despite their resilience and hard work, the strong undertow of the social origins of disadvantaged youth—the long shadow—can claw at their ambitions “like crabs in a bucket,” as one youth said. When combined with the institutional traps that youth encounter in the pursuit of postsecondary education , these forces can shortchange the dreams of even the grittiest and most determined. Twenty years after Alexander began enrolling first-­ graders in the Beginning School Study, we initiated a decade-­ long study of a cohort of­ Baltimore parents and youth who had hailed from public housing in the mid-­ 1990s, most of them from four notorious high-­ rise developments in Baltimore City: Flag House Courts, Lexington Terrace, Lafayette Courts, and the Murphy Homes. Others came...


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