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Is the American dream dead?

A groundbreaking study from Johns Hopkins University shows that for big segments of the population it is

At age 8, Ed Klein sold drugs from the front door of his family's row home in Baltimore’s Pigtown neighborhood. For decades, the area has had some of the highest crime and poverty rates in the city.

"I hate to say it, but I wouldn't raise a dog in that part of town," he said.  

They grew up in poverty, he said, his mother a single mom on welfare. "My mother never worked a day in her life," he explained. "The only job she ever had was sellin' dope."

When Klein was in first grade back in 1982, a group of researchers from Johns Hopkins University wanted to know what happened to children like him as they grew up.  

So they began a landmark study tracking nearly 800 Baltimore schoolchildren, following them through school and into adulthood, until age 28. More than three decades later, they published the outcome in June, a book titled "The Long Shadow." It offers a searing and dismal view of the chances of escaping urban poverty.

Karl Alexander
Karl Alexander, research professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University.
America Tonight

"When they start out, they're all so cute and cuddly. You want each and every one of them to own the world. But you know, sadly, that that's not going to happen," said Professor Karl Alexander, one of the researchers behind the landmark study.

The initial survey was conducted at a handful of Baltimore City schools when the children were in first grade. More than half of them were considered "urban disadvantaged," living at or near the poverty line.

As families moved, annual follow-up surveys eventually required researchers to visit every school in the city. Two follow-up surveys in adulthood required Alexander to track down the study participants in dangerous neighborhoods, fast-food restaurants and prisons. 

Researchers were still able to find 80 percent of the subjects when they were 28, including Qwan Finch. He didn't mind the questions and yearly follow ups.

"It was cool," he said. "Somebody basically just seeing how I was doing, concerned about what I wanted to do in life, my goals, my aspirations."

During school he always reported that he wanted to become a police officer. Finch grew up in Baltimore’s most notorious neighborhood, West Baltimore. Its open-air drug markets were made famous in the HBO miniseries “The Corner.”

"It made me more determined in life," Finch said about his upbringing. "It showed me that life is short. There's no guarantees. There's no promises."

According to the study, it also had a big role in determining his fate.

You're born this way

When Alexander and his team analyzed all the data, they made a bleak discovery. Not only did the poor stay poor, but only 4 percent of urban disadvantaged students graduated a four-year college. The vast majority returned to their poverty-stricken neighborhoods after school. 

"Kids who grew up in low-income distressed neighborhoods on average had lower levels of completed schooling, lower-status jobs and lower earnings as young adults,” Alexander explained.

Of the nearly 800 children originally surveyed, only 33 moved from birth families in the low-income bracket to the high-income bracket as young adults. Middle-class children were more likely to move up. 

Race also played a major role. Forty-five percent of white men from low-income backgrounds ended up with good-paying trade jobs, such as plumbers or factory workers. But only 15 percent of black men found the same.  

"We call it white privilege … it’s descriptive, it’s not an evaluative statement for us," said Alexander. "It is what we see."

On top of that, white workers made twice as much money.

Alexander believes a lot of this has to do with social network advantages: family and friend connections that give white men better access to the most lucrative sectors of blue-collar work. He said this subtle but powerful privilege "goes back generations, we’re convinced."

White women who grew up in low-income households also had an advantage over black women. Black women not only earned less, but they were more likely to remain single, which led to substantially lower household incomes.

Current rhetoric in national debates about the American Dream and upward mobility annoys Alexander. "It is frustrating … the bootstraps logic, you know, that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps and the world is available for you. In some abstract sense, anything is possible but on the ground in terms of the here and now, it doesn't work that way."

The children today

Qwan Finch
Qwan Finch grew up in Baltimore’s most notorious neighborhood, West Baltimore. Today, he drives a bus for the Maryland Department of Corrections.
America Tonight

Like almost every low-income child in the study, Finch didn't complete college, and he didn’t get the police officer job of his dreams. Instead, he drives a bus for the Maryland Department of Corrections. "The salary," he admitted, which is well below the state average, "could be better, but it's good."

He and his wife are raising their children in a low-income Baltimore neighborhood plagued with violence. Their house shares a wall with a vacant, boarded up home.

His wife has two jobs, cutting hair and home nursing, hoping that the family can move into a better, safer neighborhood some day. After working days at the prison, Finch coaches little league football. Evenings are spent huddled over books with his children. They’re making honor roll, determined to have a better future. 

Finch tears up talking about his hopes for his children, and their prospects for fulfilling the American dream.

“My kids, they're my everything. Whatever I do, I do it for them," he said.

Ed Klein
At age 8, Ed Klein sold drugs from the front door of his family's row home in Baltimore’s Pigtown neighborhood. Today, he runs a computer repair shop in one of Baltimore’s trendiest neighborhoods.
America Tonight

Klein, the 8-year-old drug dealer, has had a very different life. After serving time for selling drugs, he turned his life around.

"I am definitely living the American dream. But my dream is a reality," he said.

Klein and his wife started a computer repair shop in one of Baltimore’s trendiest neighborhoods.

"I've always had an interest in computers," he said. "So I started teachin' myself how to build computers, fix computers."

The couple are now raising their children in the suburbs where they own four-wheelers, an RV, season tickets to the New York Jets and a collection of TVs that look like the showroom floor of an electronics store. 

"I shouldn't be here," he said laughing, while sitting in his living room. "I mean, I've been in so many situations growing up. I've been standing on the corner and people have walked up and blown the guy next to me's brains out. So, every day is lucky for me.”

In the research group, Klein is a rare exception. Only one in 10 children raised in poverty see this kind of financial success.

“Your prospects for moving up in the United states, in relationship to where you started in life in terms of your family circumstances, is much more limited here in the United States than in most of the other industrialized countries throughout the world,” said Alexander.

He said his research shows that children who receive early childhood education and attend year-round school have better odds. But breaking out of poverty involves some forces beyond government control.

"We can't mess with families except in very roundabout ways, through things like reforming the tax codes and things like that. But we can fix schools, at least try to fix schools," he said. "So it's a big, difficult set of issues here that aren’t gonna be resolved quickly or easily."

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