The problem of upward mobility

Students at Druid Hills Academy deserve a chance at success.
Students at Druid Hills Academy deserve a chance at success. CHARLOTTEOBSERVER.COM

Give yourself a chance.

That’s the message I tried to convey to the 100 or more Druid Hills Academy students I spoke with Thursday during the preK-8 school’s Career Day.

Druid Hills is part of Project LIFT, the $55 million push to raise test scores and graduation rates at struggling inner-city schools.

I wanted the students to know that no matter how poor your neighborhood, no matter how “broken” your home, you can make it. No one will just hand you a brighter future, though. You have to reach out and seize it with both hands.

They’ve no doubt heard this before. It’s the dream of equal opportunity, an article of American faith passed down from generation to generation.

But reality doesn’t always square with that dream, as I was reminded a few hours later.

The reminder came in the form of a video shown during the Foundation for the Carolinas’ annual meeting. In it, the Brookings Institution’s Richard Reeves uses LEGO blocks to show how those in the top fifth of U.S. income brackets reap 52 percent of the wealth.

Meanwhile, children born into America’s poorest families stand as little as a 4 percent chance of climbing into that top bracket. Their chances of remaining stuck at the bottom? Much better – 36 percent to 43 percent.

For blacks, those odds rise even more, to 51 percent. (Just one in four white kids born at the bottom remain stuck there as adults). Seven out of 10 black kids born into a middle income bracket tumble one or two brackets lower as adults, Brookings says.

“That is scary,” Johnny Taylor, head of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, said during a recent speech in Charlotte. “Something is wrong.”

We already know Charlotte is part of the problem, thanks to a study from Harvard University, Cal-Berkeley and the Treasury Department. It found that the poor have a harder time rising here than in any other large city.

A community task force is trying to figure out why. The Harvard-Cal study suggests factors could include segregation, income inequality, the quality of schools, the level of social capital and family structure.

Hopefully, when the task force makes its recommendations, we can rise above the usual liberal-versus-conservative finger-pointing. Assigning blame isn’t conducive to solving problems.

The Census says five years from now, most American children will be non-white. About 20 years after that, most of America will be. Those slippery rungs on the upward mobility ladder aren’t a black or immigrant problem.

This is America’s problem.

Nobody’s saying everyone can or should be rich. But if the children of Druid Hills Academy do everything we ask, only to find themselves still stuck in poverty as adults, then shame on America.

Shame on us all.

Eric: 704-358-5145; efrazier@charlotteobserver.com