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And I'm Steve Inskeep. Say you saw two kids on a playground, same age, growing up in the same city. Suppose you started wondering about the mystery of what might lead one to do better or worse than the other. What factors could make the difference between prison and college, success and failure, sometimes even life-and-death? Researchers at Johns Hopkins University began a study some 30 years ago to examine just that. They followed nearly 800 kids in Baltimore from first grade into their late 20s. The team recently published what they found and what made the difference comes down to two words, money and family. NPR's Juana Summers reports.
JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Monica Jaundoo didn't have an easy life growing up in Baltimore in the early '80s.
MONICA JAUNDOO: I remember being so immune to death, so immune to like shootings, killings. I just remember, you know, wanting them to rush, like get the body out of the way so we can get back to playing hopscotch or dodgeball.
SUMMERS: Things weren't just bad outside in her neighborhood. Life at home was rough, too.
JAUNDOO: It was like really hot, no air-condition, barely- you know gas and electric. Rodents - it was just very miserable.
SUMMERS: And that's just the start. Juandoo's parents have long struggled with drugs and alcohol. And she says her older brothers still do.
JAUNDOO: They've spent pretty much all their life being incarcerated. It was a very long time before either one of them was home at the same time.
SUMMERS: And Juandoo's story is typical among the kids the researchers followed. So how can a child with the deck stacked against her still get out and get ahead?
KARL ALEXANDER: Play by the rules, work hard, apply yourself and do well in school, and that will open doors for you.
SUMMERS: That's Karl Alexander at Johns Hopkins University. This study has been his life's work. Now that it's published he's retiring. He says those cliches don't really apply to all kids.
ALEXANDER: It's only half true in the sense that it really works best for the children of privileged family background. Whose parents went to college or had college degrees, you know, had steady work and middle-class positions.
SUMMERS: Alexander found among the Baltimore kids his team studied, that a child's fate is generally fixed at birth by the strength of her family and her parents financial status. Those kids who got a better start because their parents were married and working ended up better off. Most of the poorer kids from single-parent families stayed poor. Just 33 children out of nearly 800 moved from the low income to high income bracket. And a similarly small number of kids born low income had college degrees by the time they turned 28. Monica Juandoo didn't go away to college. She barely got out of Baltimore. Just about 10 miles to Parkville, Maryland. Here's where Juandoo's story is unusual.
JAUNDOO: When I had my son, I knew right off the bat I wanted things to be different for him.
SUMMERS: As a child Juandoo may not have had money or a supportive family, but as a parent she was determined that her kids would have both. She's got a good job managing sleep studies that pays her well. She's in a strong relationship and plans to get married. We're sitting in her spotless house in Parkville. Her son Romeo and daughter Makai are upstairs.
JAUNDOO: Come here.
SUMMERS: They're both on the honor roll. Makai, 8, is in a gifted and talented program. And Romeo, 17, is looking at colleges. When asked how do you like living here, in this house, Makai says.
MAKAI: My mom tells me about the stories how she used to live in her childhood and I like that it's better because, it like - she gives support on stuff and I just enjoy the way it is right now.
SUMMERS: And if this new report is any indication, the way things are right now says a lot about where Makai and Romeo will end up. Juana Summers, NPR News.
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