Tuesday, December 15, 2020

How Does Education Fix Poverty? Spoiler alert...

 The idea that we can educate poverty away has been a popular one with policymakers and politicians for years now. Here's just one example, from Janet Yellen, former Fed Chair and, possibly, future Treasury Secretary, back in 2017:

Yellen spoke to a conference on community development today, where she says that providing children with the opportunity to learn important skills earlier is essential to ending this generational cycle of poverty.

“This research underscores the value of starting young to develop basic work habits and skills,” she said. “These habits and skills help prepare people for work, help them enter the labor market sooner, meet with more success over time and be in a position to develop the more specialized skills and obtain the academic credentials that are strongly correlated with higher and steadier earnings.”

You can find this kind of idea echoed at the international level or when plugging particular edu-programs-- education ends the "cycle of poverty" or "lifts the economy."

Now, I am not an economists (though there are so many economists that pretend to be education experts that it would serve them right if I got in their lane), so I may be missing something here. Feel free to sort me out in the comments.

But it seems to me that two things are being conflated here. One is that education can help an individual escape poverty. That one makes sense-- Pat gets an education and can quit that job at the widget factory assembly line and get a better one designing widgets or VP of widget marketing.

But the second idea--that education can end poverty as a whole--seems more problematic. Pat leaves the widget assembly line job, which pays minimum wage with no benefits and only provides 29 weeks of work per year. When Pat had the job, Pat was among the working poor. But when Pat leaves the job, the poverty-creating job, is still there and will be filled by someone else, who will still be a member of the working poor. So Pat's life improves, but the total poverty that exists remains the same.

I am stumped on how the education-ending-poverty thing works. If everyone in the country has a masters degree, does McDonalds start paying its burger flippers $20/hour? Would Walmart suddenly start paying big money and benefits because every single stocker has a degree? Will companies that used to hire 10 people with masters degree now hire 20 just because they're so plentiful, so that the available jobs for highly educated people will grow? 

None of that seems likely. Businesses are not replacing humans with computers because they just can't find humans who are well-educated enough. Businesses did not outsource jobs to other countries because the people there are so much better-educated. And businesses, as we have seen demonstrated with stimulus funding, companies don't hire more people just because they have some spare money lying around. Businesses outsource and cybersource because it saves them money. The level of education for the people they're avoiding paying doesn't change that.

Maybe the idea is that if everyone had more education, we'd suddenly be awash in entrepreneurs creating start-up businesses left and right. This seems... unlikely. Or maybe better-educated people would be more productive and that boost in productivity would lead to--oh, never mind...

(Okay, here's a differing view of that infamous chart, which is a long read and at the end, doesn't make things look much better for US workers).

My cynical non-economist view is this-- "education will fix poverty" is an excellent way to absolve all the other players. Politicians and policymakers don't have to address the problems of poverty because, hey, if the schools would just do their jobs, poverty would be fixed. Business leaders don't have to behave like responsible members of society instead of oligarchs because, somehow, it's not their fault that their business is built on the backs of underpaid, ill-used fellow citizens. It is yet another more subtle way to blame the poor for being poor, as if the Captains of Industry are looking down at the meat widgets saying, "Look, if you had more education, I'd pay you more to do that job." 

Does all this mean we should not do our best to give every student the maximum educational tools so that they can lift themselves just as far and high as they can? Absolutely not--the gig is to give every student all the tools, all the knowledge, all the power that education can give a person. We should fight poverty, and arm students to fight it. But schools can't do it all themselves; lifting individuals out of the tar pit of poverty doesn't clean up the pit itself. 

And when people start using "poverty" and "education" in the same declarative sentence, be clear on what they are talking about--helping individuals rise, or cleaning up fundamental injustices in society because society's leaders don't want to do the job. Escape poverty, or fight it? The first job may belong to schools, but the second belongs to everyone. 


  1. From an Obama Tweet 06.18.2019
    This is worth a read: a thought-provoking reminder that education reform isn’t a cure-all. As a supporter of education reform, I agree that fixing educational inequality requires doing more to address the broader, systemic sources of economic inequality.


    From the article by Nick Hanauer:

    What I’ve realized, decades late, is that educationism is tragically misguided. American workers are struggling in large part because they are underpaid—and they are underpaid because 40 years of trickle-down policies have rigged the economy in favor of wealthy people like me. Americans are more highly educated than ever before, but despite that, and despite nearly record-low unemployment, most American workers—at all levels of educational attainment—have seen little if any wage growth since 2000.

    To be clear: We should do everything we can to improve our public schools. But our education system can’t compensate for the ways our economic system is failing Americans. Even the most thoughtful and well-intentioned school-reform program can’t improve educational outcomes if it ignores the single greatest driver of student achievement: household income.

  2. So: that's the lump of labor fallacy in action. There aren't a set specific number of jobs in the economy. If people are more educated, and thus more productive, those widget jobs will become robot jobs and there will be more jobs for creatives.

    That's a separate thing from poverty though-- what is actually important to your argument is about the distribution of wealth-- since we don't really have perfect competition, it is entirely possible for people to be paid lower than their marginal product and for plutocrats to get extra-normal rents off the backs of the proletariat. (No, I'm not a Marxist, but I'm borrowing some vocabulary there.)

    The best economics on how to alleviate poverty right now focuses on early childhood interventions. If kids are fed, given medical care, given pre-K education, they have better outcomes. But yes, we also need to help parents and stop allowing/encouraging businesses extranormal profits. Government needs to stop creating market failure and stifling competition with its "pro-business" policies that benefit the Amazons and so on at the expense of workers.

    So, your general idea is right: Education is one piece of poverty alleviation, but it can't work in a world where the haves want to have poorly paid highly educated servants. It needs to be provided in conjunction with other policies aimed at helping grow the middle-class.

  3. McDonald flippers and Walmart stockers...Someone has to do these kinds of poverty-creating jobs until Industry 4.0 (Schwab, 2017) makes tasks shift from manual labor to automation completely. So, we have to accept our current realia for now. However, it does not mean that we should leave it the way it is now. Better-educated people might be able to find more improved ways of poverty reduction. We are struggling to find it now, so maybe, we should educate people, especially paying attention to early learning and care (Guarino,2021, "A blueprint for progress on early learning and care"), and let them seek better options.
    Not all holders of college degrees can be considered as educated people, therefore, we should not be afraid of not being able to provide all graduates with highly paid jobs or economic bubble it may create, as it will lead to high competitiveness among graduates.
    And as we all know, no competition-no progress.