Growing up poor but doing well: Contextual factors that predict academic success

Radha Jagannathan, Louis Donnelly, Sara McLanahan, Michael J. Camasso, Yu Yang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper combines data on family, school, neighborhood, and city contexts with survey data from the Year 9 (n = 2,193) and Year 15 (n = 2, 236) Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study to study children in America’s inner-cities who are “beating the odds”. We identify children as beating the odds if they were born to families of low socio-economic status but scored above the state average in reading, vocabulary and math at age 9, and were academically on-track by age 15. We also examine if the influences of these contexts are developmentally nuanced. We find that living in two parent households where harsh parenting methods are absent (family context) and living in neighborhoods where two parent families predominate (neighborhood context) are protective factors that help children beat the odds. We also find that city-wide contexts of higher levels of religiosity and fewer single parent households contribute to children beating the odds, however, these macro predictors are weaker when compared with family/neighborhood contexts. We find that these contextual effects are indeed developmentally nuanced. We conclude with a discussion of some interventions and policies that could help increase the number of at-risk children who beat the odds.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)169-200
Number of pages32
JournalJournal of Economic Inequality
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Economics, Econometrics and Finance(all)
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management


  • Academic resilience
  • Beating the odds
  • Developmentally nuanced risk and protective factors
  • Fragile families


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