The New York Times recently carried an article by Jason DeParle titled Harder for Americans to Rise From the Lower Rungs, which highlights the current challenges of social mobility in the United States as compared to other places, and as compared to other times in history in the United States. Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and CEO of PolicyLink, responded with a letter titled Invitation to a Dialogue: Moving Up in America that develops her theme that: ““Movin’ on up” is especially hard for children born poor and black, or poor and female.”
Both DeParle and Blackwell have disturbing data to report. The long and short of it is that children born to parents in the bottom income quintile have poor odds of leaving that income strata. Furthermore, that quintile is over-represented demographically by women and blacks, who are statistically less likely to progress out of that quintile.
Yet both DeParle and Blackwell are shockingly quiet on what seems to be the obvious effect of social mobility. It is that people leave. Social mobility isn’t just about levels of income. It is about where you live, and with whom you choose to associate. Families that seek to leave cyclical poverty often leave communities of poverty to pursue greater opportunities. They move to a place with less crime, better schools, cleaner neighborhoods and more motivated peers; and if they can’t leave, they seek to send their children to schools outside of the community of poverty. The natural, and inevitable, consequence of social mobility is the increasing concentration of poor individuals and families in the communities they leave behind. In short, social mobility is part of the problem for those for whom social mobility is hardest.
This was clear in my experience teaching in Brooklyn in one of those communities in crisis. One of my African-American colleagues, who had taught in that school for 25 years, counseled any parent with the wherewithal to get their children into a different and better school. “No Child Left Behind” made that easier. Since we were a “school in need of improvement,” every parent had the right to request a transfer to a school-not-in-need-of-improvement. The net effect? The parents who wanted a better education and more opportunities for their kids got them into other schools. In other words, we lost the most exemplary parents and their children. Our school became increasingly concentrated with children who had many of the risk-factors for academic failure: father absence, parental drug abuse, poor nutrition, unstable home life, etc.
If we truly care about social mobility for the poorest Americans, we will have to face squarely these issues:
- Parent involvement is the single best predictor of a child’s academic achievement, which in turn is a significant factor in social mobility.
- Father absence, which is normal in the poorest communities, is a significant risk factor for health, educational attainment, crime, abuse and neglect, substance abuse, and poverty.
In their earliest years, children are apprenticed to their parents in learning to make their way in the world. If we care about their mobility, we need to care for and support their parents.