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Policies Trump Schooling in Upward Mobility

I was brought up to believe that education is the single most important factor in upward mobility. But Winner-Take-All Politics (Simon & Schuster, 2010) by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson calls the assumption into question by contending that the huge differences in wealth in this country are instead the result of a campaign designed by powerful players in Washington and on Wall Street.

In other words, education alone does not explain the enormous gap between those at the very top of the income mountain and everyone else. Wages in the U.S. are at an historic low as a percentage of the economy at the same time that the richest have more wealth than ever before. The change just didn't happen by itself overnight. It has been going on for the past 30 years. And it is not strictly the result of globalization, as propagandists for the ultra rich want the public to believe. Other affluent democracies face the same challenges from abroad, but they do not have America's gross inequities.

If education is the key to upward mobility, then how do we explain the following? In 2008, when 29.4 percent of the population held a college degree, the bottom 90 percent got less than 52 percent of the national income, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. But in 1970, when only 11 percent of the population had a degree, the bottom 90 percent got 67 percent of the national income.

To put these numbers into human terms, unemployment lines now consist of many college graduates who thought that their education insulated them from such insecurity. The usual retort is that in the long run earnings for college graduates exceed those for high school graduates. However, the data supporting this view do not take into account the fields of specialization. Those who major in science, technology, engineering or math, for example, earn more on average than those who major in the humanities. Moreover, when laid off college graduates finally find jobs, they almost always take a cut in pay ("Not all jobs are equal," Los Angeles Times, Jan. 24).

For-profit colleges serve as another example of the delusion. They are promoted as providing a way for those traditionally underserved to acquire the knowledge and skills that lead to upward mobility. But this has been challenged by the government. The Justice Department and four states filed a multibillion fraud suit last August against Education Management Corporation, the nation's second largest for-profit college company, charging that it was not eligible for $11 billion in state and federal financial aid it received ("For-Profit College Group Sued as U.S. Lays Out Wide Fraud," The New York Times, Aug. 8, 2011). It's interesting to note that Education Management is 41 percent owned by Goldman Sachs.

How did things get so bad? Hacker and Pierson explain that the rich employ armies of lobbyists to do their bidding. There is little that the rest of the populace can do to combat their power. There was a time when unions acted as a counterforce. In fact, it's more than coincidental that the growth of the middle class coincided with the growth of unionism. But with unions on the defensive, I expect to see further erosion in the number of Americans in the middle class. In education, teachers unions are under siege, accused of protecting their members at the expense of students. Yet students in states with strong unions, such as Massachusetts and Minnesota, post the highest scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, while students in states with weak unions, such as Mississippi and South Carolina, perform poorly on NAEP.

Despite the bleak evidence, Hacker and Pierson believe in the ability of democracy in this country to reform itself. I don't see how this is possible as long as money plays an overwhelming role in political campaigns. For example, when the Tax Reform Act of 1986 was passed to close loopholes and make the tax code more equitable, lobbyists immediately went to work to write many of the same loopholes back into the tax code. Mitt Romney's tax returns reveal how the highest earners benefit ("How the wealthy get tax breaks," Los Angeles Times, Jan. 24).

Lobbyists are now hard at work trying to privatize education. Slowly but surely, they're convincing voters that public schools are failing. If they eventually succeed in achieving their goal, the country will be even more polarized than it is today. But it's hard to counteract the effects of the propaganda machine.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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