Another study blows up the myth of upward mobility

by Laura Clawson  –

Group of Diverse International Students Celebrating Graduation

Graduating college is right next door to impossible for low-income kids attribution: Rawpixelimages |

The myth that the United States of America is a place where upward mobility is a real possibility available to anyone persists, despite evidence to the contrary like the fact that rich kids with low test scores are more likely to graduate from college than poor kids with high test scores, and poor kids rise to the top income group as adults at rates of less than 5 percent in big parts of the country. Now, another study backs that up. Sociologists Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle and Linda Olson followed nearly 800 Baltimore kids starting in 1982, when they were first-graders. Thirty years later, their study shows just how rare it is to rise from a low-income childhood to a high-income adulthood, as well as the added challenges black men face:

Out of the original 800 public school children he started with, 33 moved from low-income birth family to a high-income bracket by the time they neared 30. Alexander found that education, rather than giving kids a fighting chance at a better life, simply preserved privilege across generations. Only 4 percent of the low-income kids he met in 1982 had college degrees when he interviewed them at age 28, whereas 45 percent of the kids from higher-income backgrounds did.Perhaps more striking in his findings was the role of race in upward mobility. Alexander found that among men who drop out of high school, the employment differences between white and black men was truly staggering. At age 22, 89 percent of the white subjects who’d dropped of high school were working, compared with 40 percent of the black dropouts.

These differences came despite the fact that it was the better-off white men who reported the highest rates of drug abuse and binge drinking. White men from disadvantaged families came in second in that department.

Just 33 people out of 800 move from low-income childhood to high-income adulthood—around 4 percent. And only 4 percent of the low-income children have college degrees by age 28. Unless you believe that work ethic explains everything and is like 96 percent heritable, there’s no way to deny that this lack of upward mobility is a societal phenomenon. And if you do believe it’s all about work ethic, the racial disparities leave you with some serious, serious thinking and explaining to do.

When you’re dealing with a societal phenomenon, policy is the best kind of answer. From job creation to a higher minimum wage to stronger anti-discrimination policies to shutting down the school-to-prison pipeline to making college affordable, we know the answers. But, between Republicans virulently opposed to them and Democrats too often too weak, we’re stuck with this status quo.

Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos