Is education a ticket out of poverty?

September 12, 2012

The ongoing attacks on public education are reducing the odds--which were already long to begin with--that working people and the poor can improve their social conditions with a better education. So what can help? Sarah Knopp, co-editor of Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation, sees an answer in the Chicago Teachers Union strike.

ACCORDING TO an August report by the Pew Research Center called "The Lost Decade of the Middle Class: Fewer, Poorer, Gloomier," the U.S. "middle class" is shrinking.

The study defines the middle class as the statistical middle of Americans--those making between $39,000 and $118,000 for a family of three. Actually, $39,000 is probably a typical salary for a starting teacher in many parts of the country, but if I were trying to support three people on that much, I don't think that I would feel "middle class."

But even allowing for a very (typically American) generous definition of who is part of the middle class, it's worth noting that this percentage of the population has shrunk from 61 percent in 1971 to 51 percent now.

Furthermore, 85 percent of the self-described respondents in the Pew study said that life is harder for them now than it was a decade ago. And the middle class share of the pie has shrunk. Middle-income people, as defined in the survey, now earn 45 percent of the total reported income in the U.S. It was 62 percent in 1971. The rest, of course, went to the top 20 percent, which now takes 46 percent of total income. And note, we're talking about income. Income is chump change to most wealthy people, whose real power comes from their wealth.

A teacher works with students in her fifth-grade class
A teacher works with students in her fifth-grade class

Yet according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 30 percent of Americans hold bachelor's degrees, more than ever before in our history. Today, about 87 percent of adults have a high school diploma, compared to 74 percent in 1971.

Americans are more educated than ever. But wait, isn't education the key to wealth in our society? A more educated population should have more social mobility, not less, according to this logic. There's something wrong with this picture.


THERE ARE basic problems with the argument that education is the key to social mobility, besides the obvious fact that a more educated population should be more prosperous.

1) Space in college is being increasingly restricted. California's community colleges, for example, have suffered $809 million in cuts since 2008. These colleges are often the stepping stone that working-class kids need to make the transition to a four-year university.

And yet a shocking study released in August shows that 470,000 community college students are waitlisted in California alone to get into the classes that they need to graduate. In addition, all but eight of the 23 Cal State schools are planning on closing their doors to any new admissions in the spring of 2013. At Cal State and University of California schools, enrollment has dropped by a fifth since 2007 due to restricted space.

2) Parents' income predicts whether you will go to college. We often tell our students that people with more education earn more money. This is true. But how much money your parents make is one of the major factors predicting how much education you will get. So students whose parents are wealthier are more likely to get more education. Because of this, education is one of the best ways to hide the fact that people's place on the social ladder can be predicted by their parents' place.

Upward mobility is extremely complicated, and the best and most complex look at it is in the study Pursuing the American Dreamby Pew. If you are born into the poorest fifth of the population, you have a 27 percent chance of making it into the wealthiest 40 percent if you earn a bachelor's degree. You have an 11 percent of the same thing if you don't earn a bachelor's degree. The problem with repeatedly citing this statistic, as teachers sometimes do, is that only just over 1 in 10 of the people from the poorest fifth will earn a bachelor's degree.

3) Standing in a crowded movie theater. In his book Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality, John Marsh uses an interesting analogy. He says that using education to "make it" is a bit like standing up in a crowded theater in order to see better. While it will work for the first couple of people who do it, soon everyone will stand up, and no one will be able to see.

This is exactly what's going on in the U.S. today as more and more people achieve some level of college education. As Jean Anyon puts it in her book Radical Possibilities: Public Policy, Urban Education and a New Social Movement, "as entry-level employees attain more education, employers merely ratchet up the requirements."


I AND other authors who contributed to the book Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation often speak on these topics during our tours to promote the book. Sometimes in these meetings, someone will stand up and say, "I am so sick of teachers taking all the blame for our "failing schools. It's an open secret that these kids aren't going to college anyway, regardless of what we do."

I disagree with this way of looking at it. First, it's impossible to tell with young people which of them will end up going to college and which won't. And the reason why the right wing has latched on to the argument that education is the key to social mobility is that it's true for a small minority--say, the 12 percent of people who are born on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder, and who go on to earn a bachelor's degree or higher. But improving the lives of the "talented tenth" of our students isn't good enough.

The main reason I think that we, as social justice educators, need to assume that all of our students may end up in college is because, whether they go to college or not, the skill set that they need to make their lives better is almost identical.

In his 2002 book The Job Training Charade, Gorden Lafer argues that, in terms of improving the quality of their lives, high school graduates would do three times better in improving their wages if they organized a union at their workplace, as compared to taking some college classes, but not completing a degree quickly. At the time of his study, finishing high school tended to raise one's wages by $2.25 an hour, but there was a $5.50 an hour wage gap between union and non-union workplaces.

Students need to be critical thinkers, both in college and in life, if they are going to participate in the struggle for their own emancipation. They need to be resourceful problem-solvers and able to negotiate bureaucracies. They need to be able to use evidence to support their arguments and convince others of their point of view. This is true for writing papers for college, but even more so for our students who will end up organizing unions or protests, or those who will be advocates for their own rights in any way.

If we can't rely on education to raise the standard of living of most Americans, what can we rely on? More than half of the jobs being created in America today require less than a bachelor's degree, according to a report called Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements from Georgetown University. If education can't be the ticket for the majority of Americans to improve their standards of living, what can?

Union workers have higher pay, more respect on the job and more say-so over their conditions of work. Our students need nothing less than the rebirth of a bottom-up labor movement, led by workers who stand up for themselves and their communities, make themselves heard and fight for a bigger share of the pie.

Everyone knows that kids learn from what we do, not from what we say. When the Chicago teachers went on strike, they were setting an example. And they are fighting not just for themselves, but for the kids' future. Not just because they're advocating for smaller class sizes, and more libraries and art and music programs. But also because the kids need an example of how people can collectively analyze a situation, plan a solution, use evidence, solve problems strategically and negotiate with each other and the powerful.

We all need an example of people finding their voice and using it.

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