My informant, Michael, and I had immensely different upbringings in contrasting socioeconomic environments and, as a result, our lives, goals, and attainments have been constructed accordingly. These socioeconomic factors contributed in shaping two diverse paths to personal as well as eduational attainments. I will analyze how family background and dynamics including race, community, class, family structure, and peer groups have affected and influenced our pathways into adulthood. Although each factor is distinct with its own unique characteristics, these factors can link together to construct social patterns and assist in forming a continual, cyclical process that is difficult to escape. Essentially, one factor contributes to the next and thus a repetitive cycle is born in which a social hierarchy is established; wealth and resources to opportunities such as higher education, stay in the hands of those who can afford it and those who cannot are left wanting.
Michael Davis is a 17 year old African American male. His mother grew up in Oakland, California, and his father in the nearby urban city of Richmond. His mom received a high school degree, but did not attend college. His father was a high school dropout who joined a gang at the age of 17, was arrested for selling drugs and remained mostly absent from Michael’s life. Michael’s mom, Tracy, did the best she could to give him a good life and raised him in Oakland. They moved to several homes they could not afford, and were subsequently evicted from, until they eventually settled in a small two-bedroom apartment in a predominantly poor, African American neighborhood. Michael and his mom are considered to be in the lower second fifth, lower class, and an in-person server household. Michael attends a local public high school and hopes to one day play football professionally. However the biggest obstacle Michael must face first is getting into college. Michael describes, “The high school I go to, most kids end up dropping out. If they do graduate, only a few go to college.” Michael and his football teammate, Darius, have their eyes set on a scholarship. Michael explains, “Most of my friends cannot afford to go to college. Darius and I are hoping to work hard enough to receive football scholarships so we can one day go pro. Without a scholarship, I wouldn’t go to college. No one in my family ever has.”
Contrastingly, I am a white female and live in Walnut Creek, California. My family lives comfortably and is able to afford a higher standard of living. Both of my parents achieved a college degree which allowed them to attain steady jobs after graduating. My mom graduated on an academic scholarship from St. Mary’s College and my dad worked two jobs to put himself through Cal Berkeley. My dad currently holds a job with Deloitte and makes a steady annual income. Based upon the Income Quantile chart, my family of six would be placed at the top 5%, considered an upper class family, and a symbolic analyst household. I was also privileged to attend a Catholic, private elementary school where books and a variety of quality educational resources were provided for me. I continued my private education as I attended Carondelet high school in Concord. There I was immersed in a community in which education was a top priority. At my high school, over 98% of the students continue on to college. Between my high school and my parents’ expectations, going to college was simply a given for me. Thus, in examining Michael’s and my disparate backgrounds, one realizes that there are multiple factors that stand out and affect one’s future direction in life.
Race is an initial, primary factor indicating one’s likely attainments. It plays a big role in determining the educational and occupational realizations of a person and in many cases has a direct correlation to the community in which one is raised. Minorities, especially blacks in inner cities, face problems many whites/the majority do not. According to Dalton Conley, nonwhites, especially African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, fall behind whites on a number of social issues, ranging from annual household income, to educational opportunities one receives, to high crime and violence rates (Conley 345). As these situations occur in mostly black communities, they trigger other hardships including unfavorable living conditions and lack of access to resources and opportunities. Conley explains that, “Blacks are half as likely as whites to graduate college or hold a professional or managerial job, and are twice as likely to be unemployed and to die before their first year of life” (Conley 497). Conley also provides statistics in which the median family net worth for white families is almost ten times greater than those of black families. With this increasing poverty in black communities, education is often unattainable, unaffordable, and unrealistic.
So simply by being black, Michael is already at a disadvantage. Growing up in Oakland, in a predominantly poor African American community, Michael’s opportunities to a successful future were much slimmer than mine. In his community, education is not a top priority, survival is. Schools are poorly funded and many times, inadequately staffed. Those who do attend high school often do not receive the needed resources to move on to a higher education. And, if presented with the opportunity to go to college, most could not afford it. According to American Fact Finder, in Michael’s community, only 18% have college degrees. Additionally, not only does Michael have to overcome the educational barrier his community poses, he has to face ongoing violence and gang pressure on a daily basis. Michael states, “When I was only 13, I had my first encounter with a gang.” However, Michael’s mom, recognizing the dangerous affects of gang association, involved Michael in football at a young age in hopes that he would stay away from the gangs in his community. She knew that football could redirect his energy and time toward what would hopefully be a more positive outlet in his life. He reflects, “Football was the best thing I could have gotten into. With so many drugs, violence, and gangs in my community, football was my way around it all. I’m blessed to have stuck with it and I pray it’ll lead me to college as well as the NFL.” Football essentially acts as Michael’s outlet and ticket to a chance at higher education. Many in his community rely on outlets like this, however it becomes a reality to only a select few. Thus, Michael’s race affected him because it influenced his community and surrounding environment that unfortunately offers him and others very little upward mobility.
Although I am of mixed nationalities, most predominantly Hispanic and Irish, my three siblings and I would be classified primarily as white or Caucasian. My race, being a part of the “majority,” has provided me with many more opportunities than Michael was given. Raised in a community where there was little violence and much access to well-funded educational resources, I was exposed to a more privileged lifestyle. My community featured several large public libraries, tutoring resources, a well-supervised and safe Park and Recreation Department and highly ranked private and public schools. My parents took advantage of these resources and we often visited libraries as a family. I remember my mom setting up a summer reading program for my siblings and I down at the library. Each summer we would compete to see who could read more books on the library list. We also participated in the Park and Rec enrichment courses and athletic programs that were offered after school and during the summer months. During the summer, we each could take two “fun” classes and one academic one. Since, the community was safe, my mom could drop us off and not have to worry about our safety down at the local park or community center. We were kept busy and safe as we were nurtured on different levels: physically, socially and academically. As a result, I was engaged in an environment where education was readily attainable, valued, and commonly achieved.
Along with one’s race, class is another significant determinant of one’s future outcome and success in life. Conley observes, “Social class is composed of any combination of parental educational attainment, parental occupational status, family income, and family wealth. Students whose parents have higher levels of any of these four measures of class generally enjoy better educational opportunities. Higher-class students obtain more years of schools, get better grades, are more likely to complete high school before age 19, score higher on cognitive tests, and are more likely to be placed in higher tracks” (Conley 493). Having a steady income not only benefits educational opportunities, but it also aids in shaping a child’s developmental growth. There are several theories explaining how family income impacts children. One theory focuses on the material deprivation that low income families experience including lack of nutrition, medical care, and a safe/nurturing environment (Callan et al., 1993;Mack&Lansley, 1985;McGregor &Borooah, 1992; Ringen, 1987). As a result, low income households are less likely to have resources associated with healthy development. Michael and I are affirming testaments of this. Michael’s family income limits much of his ability to access educational and other resources. His family income is largely spent on basic essentials such as food and rent rather than books, school, and enrichment classes. As a result, in the classroom, Michael is at a disadvantage having not been exposed to these resources, and the subsequent knowledge they provide. However, my parents’ income, prior education, and status allows me the opportunity to have access to not only top schools, but extra tutoring and enrichment courses to further my success. At an early age I was exposed to multiple educational materials, toys and books that helped aid my growth and direct me on a path towards education. Conversely, Michael’s mom simply could not afford these extra tools, as the cost of providing them would be too excessive. Her focus needed to be on the basics of existing: of providing food and shelter and doing her best to keep her son safe in a violent neighborhood.
A third critical factor which serves as a determinant of one’s achievements is family structure. In dual-headed households, having two contributors rather than one, often benefits the family financially and developmentally. In a two-parent environment, children are able to be both provided for and cared for. According to Ermisch and other statistical evidence, time and money invested in a child, affect his/her growth and personal, educational, and occupational attainments. In a single parent household, a child often lacks the necessary time, attention from parent and resources needed to be well-nurtured. Children whose single parent works significant hours (full time or more) during their early developmental stages have fewer successes and educational accomplishments when compared to children who had at least one parent spending some time at home with them, reading, conversing, and/or playing with them daily (Ermisch 2000). It is crucial, especially when a child is young, to spend some personal time with that child in a nurturing environment that promotes the importance of education. Michael’s mom, a single parent, had to raise Michael while working three jobs. She did not have the time, help, or resources to immerse him in an environment where education came first. Since Michael’s mom had to work, Michael spent a lot of time by himself at home or at his elementary school day care where he lacked sufficient attention and often played football outside rather than spending time on homework, reading or writing. These habits carried into middle school and high school where he devoted much of his time to practicing and playing football rather than focusing on school as he realized football was his chance to a future. Contrastingly, growing up in a two-parent family, my dad worked long hours, allowing my mom, a credentialed teacher, to choose to stay at home for a while when my siblings and I were young. She spent much time reading to me and teaching me before I even went to school, which provided a strong academic foundation. I developed a sense of the importance of education at an early age and it is a value I still carry with me today.
However, Conley emphasizes that as a child ages, the type of family structure becomes less critical and, instead, peers have a bigger influence. During teenage years, children receive more direction from outside sources or “reference groups.” These reference groups “include the peers one surrounds him/herself with and often aid to our understanding of our place in society” (Conley 155). Michael’s main reference group is his high school football team which has strongly influenced his goal to become a professional football player. Without his football team, Michael is unsure of where he would have ended up. Football has instilled in him a sense of hope and direction for his future. He recognizes that football presents him with an opportunity that he did not see before; the possibility of going to college. In comparison, my reference groups have included people with high educational aspirations. My high school fostered a community that put a great deal of emphasis on academic success. As a result, my classmates and I were highly competitive with one another, pushing each other to excel both academically and intellectually. Consequently, I developed a hard, studious work ethic with a goal of higher learning. For me, it was not a question of whether I would go to college, but what college would best nurture my academic pursuits. For Michael, however, college largely remains an unknown. The fact that education varies so greatly for someone only a short distance away, reflects the inconsistency in access to funding, resources, and aid.
Higher education in America has become more and more difficult to obtain if one is constantly faced with obstacles out of his reach. Access to education and opportunities should not be limited simply due to inherent social and cultural structures. The effort now is to bridge the divide to higher education, provide educational opportunities to all who seek them, and to create several outlets for those circling in the repetitious cycle of poverty. To break this cycle, we must formulate a system free from bias and separate from socioeconomic factors so that everyone has a chance at equal education. It is through our voices that we can ignite a spark of change and begin to stand up for a right to higher learning.