The Luck of Birth



I’ve always been intrigued by the notion of the luck of birth. It seems as if much of what happens to us in life is determined by who our parents are, where we are born, and when we are born.

And something about that seems quite unfair. But my beliefs were just observational, so I decided to check if any research has been done on the topic.

In my searching, I came across the research of sociologists Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle, and Linda Olson from Johns Hopkins University, which was published last year in a book titled, ‘The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood‘.

The researchers tracked 790 Baltimore children from 1982, the year they entered first grade, until they turned 28 or 29 years old, focusing in particular on those who started the journey in the most disadvantaged settings. The trio discovered that the children’s fates were substantially determined by the family they were born into.

“A family’s resources and the doors they open cast a long shadow over children’s life trajectories,” Alexander notes in the book. “This view is at odds with the popular ethos that we are makers of our own fortune.”

The results show that at nearly 30 years old, almost half the sample found themselves at the same socio-economic status as their parents. The poor stayed poor; those better off remained better off.

Only 33 children moved from birth families in the low-income bracket to the high-income bracket as young adults; if family had no bearing on children’s mobility prospects, almost 70 would be expected. And of those who started out well off, only 19 dropped to the low-income bracket, a fourth of the number expected.

“The implication is where you start in life is where you end up in life,” Alexander said. “It’s very sobering to see how this all unfolds.”

While there are certainly individual exceptions to these conclusions, the fact remains that the simple, innocent act of birth determines much of what our life will be like.

I am all for hard work and trying to make a happy successful life for yourself and your family, and realize that many of us have the opportunity to do just that. But there are also several people who have a much more difficult, often impossible, time trying accomplish such goals and dreams, all because of the luck of birth.

And so I often get upset when I hear self-help gurus say that we are not a victim of our circumstance, and that we all have an equal opportunity to pursue the American Dream.

Take being born into poverty, for example. According to the  American Psychological Association:

  • Poverty is linked with negative conditions such as substandard housing, homelessness, inadequate nutrition and food insecurity, inadequate child care, lack of access to health care, unsafe neighborhoods, and underresourced schools which adversely impact our nation’s children.
  • Poorer children and teens are also at greater risk for several negative outcomes such as poor academic achievement, school dropout, abuse and neglect, behavioral and socioemotional problems, physical health problems, and developmental delays.

I can’t imagine how hard it must be for children to recover from such a start. And such a start was not the result of any choice those children made, yet they are often held responsible for the problems caused by pure circumstance.

So rather than telling people they just have to get their act together, how about showing some compassion. After all researchers at Harvard have shown that compassion is more effective than toughness.




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