The final piece to solving poverty in the 21st century is providing quality education to those living in poverty.
I spend a lot of time speaking about how important education is for us to be competitive in this new world, but I worry that the message falls on deaf ears. My thoughts on the role of education in eliminating generational poverty come not only from my own background, but also from my recent experience as an Eisenhower Fellow to India to study poverty and education. What I saw outside of our own borders surprised me. I met many poor people in India who lived in unimaginable poverty, but while not having running water or a stable food supply many of them spoke perfect English because they saw speaking English as the language of mobility and opportunity. They were also desperate for the opportunity to be educated and to receive job training especially in computers and for service based jobs. The desire to better themselves and educate themselves was deeply ingrained in the culture and was a source of pride. They recognized that education was the key to stability and sustenance. Why haven't we reached this same conclusion?
In many areas of the United States, including within the inner cities that I frequently spend time with the residents (and where I grew up), the sentiment is different. It's not that people who are living in poverty here don't want a better life, but the belief that they can achieve a better life through education seems to be missing. Maybe it's because of the lack of quality of the education they are receiving (even though compared to India the worst school in the U.S. would seem like an upgrade) or the lack of belief in their own personal skills. There is nothing that I see that leads me to believe that it is a capability issue for our children. I do however see a disconnect with our young people between education and the subsequent opportunity.
There are so many reasons to cite for why poor children are not achieving: Poor school facilities, not enough quality teachers, lack of school choice, poor parenting or lack of desire. Although some of that may be true we cannot let any obstacles get in the way of educating our children. With that being said, we are in a precarious position where achieving a higher education is more difficult for those that are not well-off due to the ever-increasing rise in cost. Because of this I am concerned that we are turning into a nation of the educated haves and have-nots.
This is dangerous territory and I know I personally would not have the life I have achieved without my education. This is also true for many of people that have escaped poverty. Getting a degree helped me to climb the socioeconomic ladder into the middle class, but the reality is only about 30 percent of the U.S. population has a bachelor's degree. A traditional four-year college education is not the path for everyone or all careers, but what are we doing to ensure good opportunities for the other 70 percent?
The flattening of the world with global commerce and technology has forever changed our economy. As much as some may yearn for the good 'ol days of yesteryear, the only place they live is in the history books. Even manufacturing, which is just starting to show up in American cities again, is based on computers and robotics, needing only a small number of skilled technicians rather than a multitude of hands. Current opportunities exist in creative and service industries rather than the manufacturing assembly lines that marked much of the 20th century. The change is creating new opportunities to gain wealth, but is highlighting the lack of skills for many of the poorest among us. Many jobs that previously would have required only a high school diploma are now requiring bachelor's degrees. Our schools, starting at a young age, need to be preparing our children for this new world. This means creativity, problem solving, and analytical thinking are skills that need to be openly taught alongside reading, writing and arithmetic.
A young lawyer I know has failed to land a job almost two years after graduating from law school. She recently said to me she was thinking about going back to school for a more marketable degree. It is a problem when a student exits school, let alone graduate school, believing they are without marketable skills, even if that is just perception. It is also Exhibit A of the difficulty that everyone is having in this new job market, even those with degrees.
I'm sure some will rail against the call for education saying it is for the elite and not the path for those that want to go into trades, but the numbers tied to education don't lie. The unemployment rate is 4.1 percent for college graduates compared to 8.7 percent unemployment rate for high school graduates. Education gives people choices and the ability to care for themselves. It is not only the right thing to do to make sure that those living in poverty get an opportunity to get a decent education, but a necessary investment for us as a society. Educated and skilled neighbors are less likely to need to utilize the social safety net and will help us to reignite the path to prosperity that the American Dream once promised.