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.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.
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.
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.