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The Elite “Let Them Eat Education” Fallacy

The Elite “Let Them Eat Education” FallacyThe Elite “Let Them Eat Education” Fallacy

Yves here. If you’ve read Thomas Frank’s book Listen, Liberal, he charts how the Democratic party abandoned the working class and came to represent professionals, the more elite, the better. The Democrats regularly take the position that the solution to all sorts of economic problems, like inequality and unemployment, is education. You too can have a bright, secure future as a symbol manipulator!

There are plenty of reasons to doubt this theory. The shift in the balance of power towards employers means that the payoff to getting a good general education is questionable. worker rights have been so badly diluted that average job tenures were down to just a bit over four years, and it’s likely that more recent data would show a further decrease. That might not be so bad if employers will willing to hire individuals with general skills, but that is less and less true. When I was a kid, a college education from a decent school meant you were pretty much assured a job, even if that job might not be one you were so keen about, because employers expected to have to train new workers. That investment meant that employers had incentives to retain those employees so as to recoup the cost of new hires being less productive while they were getting up to speed. As we know too well, many employers prefer to treat workers as disposable, even though the managerial cost of replacing people is not cheap, particularly when the job skills are narrowly spec’ed.

The result is that students increasingly have to take a mercenary approach to their education. But how can one possibly sus out what skill set at age 20 to 23 might form the foundation for a 30+ year career? Look at how one of the formerly secure paths, that of being a doctor, has been turned on its head by the way insurers and the ACA are increasingly pushing doctors into being employees of health care organizations and practicing corporatized medicine. Not only is that profoundly unattractive to MDs who care about patient health, but it is also leading a lot of doctors to abandon treating medical conditions and instead converting their practices to niches that serve the wealthy so they can avoid being under the thumb of insurers, such as cosmetic procedures or anti-aging.

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Related to that is an issue that Jamie Galbraith described in his book The Predator State: that it wan’t such a hot idea on a societal level to encourage more people to get advanced degrees. They are costly in personal and economic terms, and the recipient of those degrees have very narrow skills. If they can deploy them productively, that’s great, but if they can’t, their alternatives are usually poor. They would have wound up better off getting a job after college. And remember that Galbraith made this argument more than a a decade ago, when higher education costs were less catastrophic than they are now.

Another layer of the problem is increased class stratification. I know lots of people personally who came from working class families, both my age and somewhat younger, who went to elite schools and got prestigious jobs. All sorts of data now shows that people who grow up in lower income cohorts are unlikely to leave them. Greater class differences and less class mingling means that there are fewer opportunities for bright, energetic kids from the wrong side of the tracks to learn to master the class markers necessary to move up the social ladder. And that’s before you get to the fact that continuing attacks on public education and teachers, the increased propensity of parents of means to send their children to private schools, and the looting operation known as charter schools have increased the gap between the pre-college educational experience of the upper middle class and affluent and everyone else.

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With all that as background, no wonder that education is insufficient to combat the additional barriers to advancement that blacks face.

By Darrick Hamilton, Associate Professor of Economics and Urban Policy, The New School. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking

Last week’s release of The Ever Growing Gap, a study by the Institute for Policy Studies and the Corporation for Enterprise Development into America’s vast and growing racial wealth divide, raises the urgent question of policy remedies. And it’s on that front that our own findings on the question of educational opportunity — where the disparities are often the favored explanation of many researchers and policy analysts for the racial wealth gap — are worth revisiting.

Our recent research brief entitled, “Umbrellas Don’t make it Rain: Why Studying and Working Hard Isn’t Enough for Black Americans,” critiques the preponderance of research and public policy that asserts that education and hard work drive upward mobility, especially as it relates to racial and ethnic disparity. Like umbrellas and rain, simply observing that wealthier individuals typically have higher levels of education does not necessarily mean that educational attainment is the causal factor behind their greater wealth.

Our research found that the typical net worth of black families headed by a college graduate is only about $23,000, while the typical white family of equivalent educational achievement has close to eight times that amount, with about $180,000 in wealth.

In fact, black households headed by a college graduate have only about two-thirds of the wealth of white families whose head dropped out of high school.

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So, while a college degree is positively associated with relative wealth within a particular racial category, it does little to explain or address the massive wealth gap across the racial divide.

Nor is a “good” job necessarily the great wealth equalizer that many imagine. Income-poor white families own more wealth than middle-income black families — the typical white household whose head is unemployed has nearly twice the wealth of the typical black family whose head holds a full-time job —about $23,000 versus $12,000. The typical black family whose head is unemployed, by contrast, has no wealth.

While not to diminish the intrinsic value of education, nor our society’s responsibility to equip all its children with a high-quality education, our findings demonstrate that education alone is not the antidote for the enormous racial gaps in wealth and employment.

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