Yesterday after hearing this report about the middle class on Minnesota Public Radio’s Marketplace, something clicked for me, and I had to get those thoughts out of my head no matter how crude the form. The opportunity presented itself today when I commented on a friend’s Facebook post. Here is my take-away from Krissy Clark’s excellent reporting:
The education gap and the income gap are very closely related at present. I heard a report on NPR yesterday that really brought clarity to this subject. Briefly, we are currently at a crossroads. My friend Erik Hare knows all about economic cycles and writes quite a bit about the economy. I think some conversations I’ve had with him have touched on each aspect I will mention, and maybe he’s already put these pieces together, but it didn’t resonate for me until after I heard the report.
OK, back to the crossroads. We are in the midst presently of just about all of the historical economic cycles from 2500 year, to 500 year, to generational, etc. During our lifetimes the US economy has shifted from a large unionized production labor force to a largely “at-will” low wage service sector work force. Going back to the turn of the last century we were in a similar position: the middle class of farmers had decreased drastically and new “at-will” low-wage factory workers were leaving the ranks of the middle class to become the working poor.
My own great-grandfather was among the “robber-barons” and elite at the turn of the last century, much like our top 2% in this country are increasing their wealth enormously while real unemployment is in the 15-20% range and those of us who are working are losing ground. The Great Depression hit and some other tragedies struck and my forebears lost their fortune, but at the same time new policies emerged that created a new education system (the one largely in existence today) to train people to be “good factory workers.” Other policies and actions raised the standard of living of the poor production workers so they could become the “new” middle class. Times have changed. We no longer need compliant factory workers. We haven’t yet fully adapted our education system to reflect that. In fact, we still haven’t changed our system to reflect that we are no longer an agrarian society, and we pay heavily for that with “the summer slide.”
In order for things to change both within education, and change we must, and within the ever widening economic gap, we need to change how we think about the reality of the economy and how best to educate people to become adept and skillful service sector workers. Higher education is not the answer. 70% of Americans have no college degree. The price tag for higher ed is staggering, and the jobs available to most when they graduate just aren’t paying well enough to justify the expense, so we need to develop a system whereby our students can develop excellent critical thinking and communication skills as well as to be adaptable to the ever-changing requirements of the service sector, and we need for students to develop these skills before they graduate from high school. It isn’t happening right now for the majority of them.
There’s much more to be said about this topic, and I hope to be able to converse more about it with Erik. I don’t have all the answers, but it seems pretty clear that most of the folks currently governing us don’t have *any* of the answers. We need to adjust our education system and our policies to recreate a new “service sector” middle class. If the minimum wage had increased concurrently with increased productivity, we wouldn’t have this problem as our lowest paid workers would be earning in excess of $19 per hour and our top couple percent wouldn’t have increased their own personal wealth at such a rapid pace.