I am a firm believer in the power of education. The mind is a powerful weapon in the fight for peace and justice and I believe it is a fundamental right of all children everywhere to get a good education. But it is a mistake to directly link this to incomes.
President Obama has been going around the country touting the virtues of getting higher education as a pathway to better paying jobs. He is not alone in this. Every politician (except perhaps Rick Santorum, though he seems to be a believer for his own children) urges students to stay in school so as to get ahead in life. They point to statistics that show that people with a college degree, or at least some college education, earn much more over the course of their lifetimes than those without. And this is true. According to Jack Metzgar, Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has data that shows that “having a bachelor’s degree should yield a person nearly $30,000 a year more in wages than a high school graduate.”
But when president Obama said to applause in his 2010 State of the Union address that “In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a first-class education,” he was talking nonsense.
I am surprised that this notion that higher education is the way to solve the problem of poverty is not more widely challenged. A little common sense, a basic understanding of the law of supply and demand, will tell you that higher education cannot possibly be an anti-poverty strategy because it is designed to benefit just a few and the positive correlation between a college education and income holds true only because a limited number of people get higher education. If hypothetically everyone, or even large numbers, went on to college, then a college degree would fetch a far lower premium.
So why are so many exhorted to pursue higher education when the barriers to entry (such as tests and costs) are so high as to let so few in and even fewer to graduate? It is because the capitalist system needs many more people who are resigned to working at low-wage dead end jobs to produce the relatively inexpensive goods and services that the well-to-do can enjoy. As Voltaire said, “The comfort of the rich depends upon the abundance of the poor.”
But it is not enough to simply have lots of people working in low-wage jobs because they can feel aggrieved, think the system is unfair, and get restless. You also need people to be resigned to their lot in life, to think that they are stupid and incapable of higher learning and thus undeserving of a better life. The way you do that is by urging them to aim high and then subjecting them to repeated failures so that they think it is their own fault that they could not succeed.
It used to be the case that the US was #1 in the percentage of its population aged 25-34 that had some college education. But according to Ann Kirschner of the City University of New York, the US has now slipped to #12 among the 36 countries labeled as developed. Metzgar reports that the US census figures reveal that only about 30% of American have bachelor’s degrees.
It’s even more surprising, however, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that in 2010 only 20% of jobs required a bachelor’s degree, whereas 26% of jobs did not even require a high school diploma, and another 43% required only a high school diploma or equivalent. And according to the BLS, this isn’t going to change much by 2020, since the overwhelming majority of jobs by then will still require only a high school diploma or less. What’s more, nearly 3/4ths of “job openings due to growth and replacement needs” over the next 10 years will pay a median wage of less than $35,000 a year, with nearly 30% paying a median of about $20,000 a year (in 2010 dollars).
If you exhort more people to get college degrees when the jobs that require them are not there in commensurate numbers, then we should not be in the least surprised when we hear news reports that half of recent college graduates are unemployed.
So what should we do about poverty? Metzgar has some practical suggestions:
- “As an individual, get a bachelor’s degree or you are doomed to work hard for a wage that will not provide a decent standard of living for a family. You may not get such a wage even with a bachelor’s degree, but without it your chances are slim and getting slimmer.
- But as a society, “the best anti-poverty program around” cannot possibly be “a first-class education” when more than 2/3rds of our jobs require nothing like that. The best anti-poverty program around is higher wages for the jobs we actually have and will have.”
Alexander Cockburn concurs with Metzgar.
So what is the best anti-poverty program? Higher wages for the jobs that are out there, currently yielding impossibly low annual incomes. The current American minimum wage ranges between $7.25 and $8.67 per hour. From time to time senior executives of Wal-Mart call for a rise in the minimum wage since, in the words of one former CEO, Lee Scott, “our customers simply don’t have the money to buy basic necessities between pay checks.” The minimum wage in Ontario, Canada, is currently well over $10 per hour, while in France it now stands at nearly $13. Australia recently raised its minimum wage to over $16 per hour, and nonetheless has an unemployment rate of just 5 percent.
So why don’t we have that kind of discussion instead of blathering on about how everyone should get a college education? As Metzgar says:
[B]roadly speaking, about one-third of Americans live in one world, while another two-thirds live in a rather different one, but that public discourse – in the mainstream media, for sure, but even more so in elite media and the academy – is conducted by the one-third who are college-educated and have jobs with a fair amount of autonomy and/or a decent income. This one-third mistakenly takes our world to be typical – or said another way, the educated middle class tends to mistake our part of America for the whole.
Of course, raising the minimum wage to the levels of a living wage will cause a major upheaval in the system. At the very least it will raise the prices of many goods and services and thus reduce the purchasing power, especially of the well-to-do who will likely see a slight reduction in their standard of living.
If we are serious about having an anti-poverty program then that is what we should be talking about rather than urging everyone to get a college education.