In a new paper, Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute argues that as a nation, “we are not broke, nor will we be”:
Nevertheless, while these claims have little in the way of truth, politicians and pundits have successfully used them to promote budget cutbacks and the notion that employers cannot afford decent pay and benefits. These claims are meant to justify efforts to scale back government programs and public-sector and private-sector workers’ wages and benefits.
The paper also points out how wealth and wage disparities have widened significantly during this period. The middle class as a whole has not gained wealth or received much of the income gains of the past 30 years. Between 1980 and 2009 the typical or median worker saw hourly wages grow by just 11.2% while income per worker grew by 59%. Since 1979, the top 10% of households have received almost two-third of all the income gains, with the top 1% claiming 38.7% of all the gains.
Divisions in the public – typically race and class divisions – distract from this larger picture of how wealth is being distributed. As Angela Glover Blackwell writes in a recent Huffington Post piece:
The face of America is changing. And the fate of America hinges on how we react to — and invest in — those changes.
By 2042, a majority of Americans will be people of color. Already, California, Texas, Hawaii, New Mexico, and DC have more people of color than whites. And today, nearly half of all children are kids of color. By definition, if they don’t succeed, the nation won’t succeed.
We need to invest in ourselves now, and ourselves includes all the public school children in California, over half of whom are low-income, half of whom are Latino, and only 27% of whom are white. We cannot continue to distribute wealth in this way and remain a vibrant country with a strong middle class.
“As we think about how we’re going to respond to the changing demographics we can’t just say, well, we’ve got ours, they’ll get theirs. They are you, we are they, we are one, we are completely bound up together” — Angela Glover Blackwell
Increasingly, if ‘we’ means the middle class, we don’t even have ours, so let’s invest and unite while we can. A great place to focus this movement on our children and our common future is the schools.
Massachusetts is moving boldly in that direction, investing statewide in the poverty alleviation approach that is central to Promise Neighborhoods. In an Ed Week blog, the MA Secretary of Education writes that his department has admitted that:
closing achievement gaps is not as simple as adopting a set of standards, accountability and instructional improvement strategies. While these strategies are necessary, the data on student achievement in Massachusetts, after nearly two decades of reform, makes it readily apparent that schooling solutions alone are not sufficient to achieve our aspiration of getting all students to proficiency. We have set the nation’s highest standards, been tough on accountability and invested billions in building school capacity, yet we still see a very strong correlation between socioeconomic background and educational achievement and attainment. It is now clear that unless and until we make a more active effort to mitigate the impediments to learning that are commonly associated with poverty, we will still be faced with large numbers of children who are either unable to come to school or so distracted as not to be able to be attentive and supply effort when they get there. In other words, we must create a healthy platform in the lives of all of our children if we expect them to show the learning gains expected to result from optimized instructional strategies.
These are bold pronouncements, but how much community leadership will there be? How will bottom-up leadership ensure that these investments serve the real needs on the ground? Promise Neighborhood type approaches need to involve families in the shaping of public education. It’s not just about improving achievement and workforce readiness, it’s about a citizenry that is being prepared to lead the future. Education can lead the broader changes in social policy that we need to have a robust, equitable society if we see students not as outputs that need to be properly manipulated to achieve desired proficiency results, but as people who need to be empowered as learners and future leaders.