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Heresy: Education is Not the Cure for Poverty

In our work as educators, we spend much of our time discussing how to get young people on track to enter and complete college, and thus be ready for those wonderful careers in science, math and technology. But sometimes I have a disturbing sense of unreality. Sometimes it feels as if we are working so hard to get our students on a conveyer belt that leads - where? California's community colleges, already operating on a bare bones budget, face a cut of another $400 million. The State University and UC systems are losing $500 million. These cuts will mean the elimination of classes, increases in fees, and fewer available spaces for incoming students.

And we are told "you cannot fix problems by throwing money at them." It is so odd then, that when wealthy Americans run into problems, the first thing they demand is that money be thrown their way. Didn't we "fix" that banking crisis by throwing money at it? Haven't we fixed the terrible threat to the wealthiest Americans by preserving their 36% marginal tax rate - which was about to rise to the extortionary level of 39%? And those executives that raked in record bonuses apparently also appreciated the throwing of money in their direction.

It seems as if the problems of our schools could indeed be solved by some accurately thrown money. The trouble is, all the money is being thrown to those who already have it. And they are bribing those doing the throwing so there is no interruption in the flow.

But we still come back to the bigger question. What are we preparing our students FOR? Even assuming that college is accessible, does the bachelor's degree offer all that is promised? All the energy around education reform seems to hinge on some implicit assumptions. Our students are doomed to lives of poverty if they do not receive a good education, meaning attend college and get trained for the jobs of the future. Turn this around and you get the following assumption: If our students ARE well-educated and trained for these jobs, they will find good-paying jobs await them.

It seems as if we could look around at our current economy and see if there is evidence to support these assumptions. Lawrence Mishel at the Economic Policy Institute makes some solid inroads here in a recent report entitled "Education is Not the Cure for High Unemployment or Income Inequality."

One of the theories offered as to why we have unemployment is that there is a mismatch between available jobs, and workers with sufficient skills to fill them.
Mishel's research does not support this theory. According to him, "trends do not support any notion of this recession's higher unemployment being fueled by those with the least education."

Mishel also discusses the often heard claim that America must dramatically increase the number of students who attain four year college degrees.

... the trends in the 2000s indicate that the relative demand for college graduates is growing much more slowly than in prior decades. Plus, the wages for college graduates have been flat for about 10 years and running parallel to those with high school degrees, and they have been growing far more slowly than productivity. The implication of these trends is that a surge of college graduates, whatever the benefits (and there are many), can be expected to drive the college wage down. Wage inequality would diminish, but by pressing college graduate wages down (not just in relative terms), which is not the picture frequently painted of the future.

This is not to say that education offers no advantage - it does. But sending more and more of our students to college is not some sort of panacea for poverty. And there does NOT appear to be an increasing market demand for more college graduates - perhaps the opposite.

.... the rapid growth of the need for college graduates is not a juggernaut launched in the early 1980s that continues to this day: rather, the relative demand for college graduates has been slowing down in each decade since the 1980s and is now growing at a historically slow pace. It is this slow pace of the most recent period that might be the best clue to the future needs for college graduates.

Mishel concludes by suggesting that, rather than promoting more education as a panacea, we should pursue a

...much broader path to prosperity, one that encompasses those at every education level. The nation's productivity has grown a great deal in the last 30 years, up 80% from 1979 to 2009, and such productivity growth or better can be expected in the future. Yet with all the income generated in the past and expected in the future it is difficult to explain why more people have not seen rapid income growth. It is not the economy that has limited or will limit strong income growth, but rather the economic policies pursued and the distribution of economic and political power that are the limiting factors.


We will not educate our nation out of poverty - as seductive as that vision might be for us.
Poverty will be reduced when we figure out how to get some of the tremendous wealth our economy is generating flowing back towards those who need it most, and stop throwing it at the wealthy.

What do you think? Are we in danger of creating false expectations with the push to get everyone into college? Can our economy deliver?

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