Friday, June 24, 2011

Our Ailing Economy and the Education Cure

Denise Gelberg
by Denise Gelberg — May 03, 2011
Policy makers and business leaders often point to our K-16 education system as the cause of our economic ills. The oft-heard refrain is that a reformed system of education will lead America into economic health during this age of global economic competition. The author questions this great faith in the transformative power of education given the realities facing youngsters today. Growing income inequality, unaffordable higher education, and paltry growth in jobs that pay a living wage conspire to rob education of its promise for too many of today’s children.

Americans have long held a nearly messianic belief in the power of schooling. When Horace Mann proposed free public education for the masses more than 150 years ago, he promised that education would simultaneously promote prosperity and safeguard our republic against revolutionary forces. Since that time those who wanted to improve their lot in life saw education as a way to overcome barriers based on class, ethnicity, and race. Today, our nation’s leaders – from Ben Bernanke to Barack Obama – express the belief that education will provide the cure for our serious economic woes.

Faith in the transformative nature of formal education was rooted in reality for Americans coming of age in the mid-twentieth century. Governmental policies and legislation fostered the growth of a stable middle class and put higher education within the reach of the masses. The G.I. bill and free or low tuition state universities enabled young people from modest means to attend and graduate from college.  

Rising education levels and a growing economy led to increased prosperity for many people during the twentieth century. However, the underpinnings of that success – stable, supportive family life, improved economic conditions for the working class, and clear pathways to higher education – have been seriously eroded over the last three decades. Still, we hear today’s pundits and policymakers assert that education is the linchpin to our economy’s health. The question is, given contemporary social and economic realities, does K-16 education have the power to heal what ails our nation?

Children: The Canaries in the Mine

Formal education is most effective when children’s first educators, i.e., their families, are able to provide for and nurture them. It has long been known that youngsters raised in families with sufficient resources have the best “life chances.” The converse of that is also true: children from families with few resources often lag behind their middle class peers on a host of indicators. This is apparent when American children enter kindergarten at age five. There is a multi-year gap in the vocabulary, skills, and knowledge of five year olds coming from poor and better off families. Conditions children experience outside of school - in their first years of life, as well as outside the school day and year - exert a powerful influence on their capacity to thrive both in and out of school.

Since the 1970s, middle and working class families have steadily lost ground on many fronts. Federal policies on the minimum wage, tax law, financial deregulation, labor unions, corporate governance, and safety net issues have all worked to favor those at the very top of the income distribution, to the detriment of everyone else. As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have written in their book, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer – and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, “Over the last generation, more and more of the rewards of growth have gone to the rich and superrich. The rest of America, from the poor through the upper middle class, has fallen further and further behind.” Thus, in the first year of the Great Recession – 2008-2009 – while unemployment neared 10% and many families saw their wealth evaporate, the incomes of the very highest earners in our country – those earning more than $50 million a year – increased fivefold. The following year, as the recession dragged on, the nation’s 38 largest companies paid out a record-breaking $140 billion to their executives and investors. Corporate profits in 2010 reached record levels, resulting in two trillion dollars held in cash reserves – an all-time high; this while nearly a tenth of the workforce sat idle for lack of a job.

Children are suffering disproportionately from the long-term effects of income inequality and the current economic downturn. Although they comprise a quarter of our total population, they account for 36% of all people in poverty. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 42% of our youngsters now live in low-income homes and a fifth live in poverty. By Spring 2009 foreclosures and evictions had resulted in the homelessness of more than a million American youngsters.

Children are, in a very real sense, the “canaries in the mine” of our nation. Wholly dependent on the ability of caring adults to provide for them, their well-being is an indication of the overall health of our society. It is perplexing that UNICEF’s most recent report on international child well-being, “The Children Left Behind,” has not been taken as a wake-up call regarding the precarious nature of childhood in America. Our nation’s rankings were among the worst of the 24 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD): 22nd in health well-being and 23rd in material well-being. Finland, so often cited as a model of a successful educational system, ranked 6th in the material well-being of its children, with only 3% of its youngsters living in poverty and income inequality but a shadow of what it is in the United States. While we continually hear how our children stack up next to our economic competitors on standardized tests, there is nary a word mentioned about our dismal showing on international metrics of child well-being.

College: A False Promise?

Our young people today are told at every turn that a college degree is now a requirement for success. That mantra has driven growing numbers of students to enroll in two and four year institutions of higher education. But, unlike the situation that faced high school graduates in the mid-twentieth century, college is now often far beyond the graduates’ financial reach. For more than two decades, the cost of college has climbed at double the rate of inflation; this during a period when most American families’ income stagnated or shrank. For a large proportion of college students, the only way to complete college is to go into debt. In 2009, new college graduates began their adult lives with their diploma in hand and an average student loan debt of $24,000. 2011 marks a first: student loan debt will outstrip credit card debt, topping a trillion dollars.

Paying back student loans is especially difficult for recent college graduates because their unemployment rate has averaged just a notch below that of the general population during the Great Recession. Richard Arum, an NYU sociologist who has studied this cohort, has concluded that those graduating during these hard times are “getting hammered,” in other words, unable to find full-time employment and/or employment that will allow them to start paying back their college loans. Many new graduates are taking work that does not require a college degree so they can make ends meet. This was not unforeseen. Throughout the first decade of this century, the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecast the largest job growth to be in occupations that pay low wages and require little education, for example, retail clerks, janitors, fast-food workers, home health aides. It would be hard to argue with newly minted college graduates who felt they had been duped by following the conventional wisdom. As Nobel laureate Paul Krugman has written, “It’s no longer true that having a college degree guarantees that you’ll get a good job, and it’s becoming less true with each passing decade.”

Improving Children’s Life Chances

So the question remains: Does it make sense for our leaders to point to education as the way to fix what ails our economy? The answer is “no” for two critical reasons. First, too many children are living precarious lives. Putting the burden of improving their life chances solely on the schools they attend allows us to avert our eyes from the bigger and very troubling picture, that is, a large minority of our children are growing up in or near poverty, putting them at risk for failure in and out of school. Second, higher education has become unaffordable for most young people. Equally disturbing, debt-laden new college graduates now enter an economy that has failed to create jobs that will pay for the skills they have acquired at such great cost.  

Education is but one of many powerful influences that shape our young people. Income inequality, which has resulted in stagnation and hard-times for too many American families, is having a potent, negative affect on children’s lives. As of this writing, there is little evidence that our elected leaders intend to address this corrosive phenomenon. Rather, they seem willing to perpetuate “winner takes all” politics, working hardest for those who have lobbyists on their payroll and access to the halls of power.  

The extension of the Bush tax cuts for families earning over $250,000 a year is, perhaps, the most glaring example of this. As New York Times economics writer David Leonhardt has pointed out, the $60 billion needed to fund tax cuts for the wealthy could have provided a free college education – including room and board - for about half of all full-time students at both four and two-year colleges. Alternatively, that revenue could have funded universal pre-school for 3 and 4 year old youngsters throughout the country. Protection of the wealthiest among us – at the expense of the less privileged – is being maintained at the state level in places such as New York, where massive cuts to Medicaid and the state’s neediest school districts have been enacted while a tax surcharge on families earning more than $300,000 is allowed to expire.

Formal education is but an arrow in the quiver of any effort to improve the lives of children living in families that struggle every day. The time has come for our elected leaders to make the dream of shared prosperity and broad opportunity come to life once again for our nation’s young people. The alternative – indulging in the pipedream that K-16 education alone will miraculously fix what ails our economy – is something we can ill afford to do.  

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 03, 2011 ID Number: 16400, Date Accessed: 6/24/2011 6:20:03 PM

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