Has the Left Lost Faith in Upward Mobility?

Dear Deborah,

Earlier this week you wrote that you were “stunned” that I’d suggest a simple rule for our young people: “Don’t have babies until you can afford them.” Stunned was a much kinder word than many commenters used to describe their reaction–or their thoughts about me!

But let me admit to being stunned by your statement, “The odds that young women in poverty will find ways out of poverty are not great (above all in today’s economy and wage scale).”

This strikes me as incredibly defeatist and fatalistic, not to mention depressing. But it also strikes me as incorrect.

Let’s do the math.

Today the federal income poverty threshold for a single person is $11,490. If that person works a minimum-wage job for 40 hours a week and for 50 weeks a year, she earns $14,500 per year. Ergo, she’s not poor, at least according to the official definition. (To be sure, she’s not living the high life either–and is almost surely sharing a home with family or friends to make ends meet.)

What if this worker has a baby? Now things get much more challenging. The poverty threshold for a family of two is $15,510; a minimum-wage job is no longer enough. Furthermore, working 40 hours a week is tough when you’ve got a baby to care for. On the other hand, additional government benefits kick in–the earned income tax credit, childcare subsidies, food stamps, possibly housing vouchers–that might keep our worker (and her baby) just a notch above the poverty line.

Of course, if she has a husband, things start to look brighter. Let’s say he works 40 hours a week, and she works 20, both at the federal minimum wage. That gives them an income of $21,750–above the poverty threshold of $19,530 for a family of three–not including the earned-income tax credit, food stamps, and other government benefits.

Here’s my point: A young woman in poverty will “find ways out of poverty” if 1) she gets a full time job, 2) she avoids having a baby, or 3) she has a baby while also married.

This is why it’s so important that we teach our young people to wait to start a family until they are ready. What’s so controversial about that? And in fact, many people are doing so. As happened during the Great Depression, the U.S. birth rate plummeted with the onset of the Great Recession. While there are long-term reasons to be worried about this trend, I view it as an indicator of virtue: Families are waiting until times aren’t so tough to start raising children. Good for them.

But really, Deborah, our aspirations for our young people–rich, poor, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, whatever–should be much more ambitious than the minimum wage, food stamps, and a housing voucher. I get the impression from many on the left, however, that they no longer believe in education as the great equalizer or even as a springboard to greater opportunities. They seem to glumly accept that children born into poverty are destined to do poorly in school, and will be lucky to end up in low-skilled jobs as adults. The best we can do for them is to ease their path to high school graduation, and then raise the minimum wage so that their low-skilled jobs will provide greater income–or find other ways to supplement their earnings with government services.

That approach to “poverty fighting” is wrong on at least two counts. First, it’s deeply pessimistic, taking a permanent underclass as a given while giving up on an immense amount of human potential. Second, it’s naïve, both economically and politically. If we raise the minimum wage dramatically, won’t employers replace workers with robots or export the jobs to far-away places? And if taxpayers are asked to support perpetual benefits for a permanent underclass, don’t we think they will eventually rebel?

I take a different view, as do most ed-reformers. Rather than accept a future of low-skill, low-wage work for our impoverished young people, we aspire to build their “human capital”–their knowledge, skills, capabilities, talents, habits, character, however you want to phrase it–so that, among other things, the labor market will one day repay their contributions to society with a wage that far exceeds any minimums. I acknowledge that not all of our young people–low-income or otherwise–will make it to the level of a high-skilled worker, but surely we can help most of them learn valuable, remunerative skills that allow for self-sufficiency and the chance to make a significant contribution in the workplace and in the community.

But here’s the thing, Deborah: I can’t figure out how to get from here to there except through better schools. Whatever the question, stronger schools seems to be the answer:

How do we break the insidious cycle of poverty, which chains children to neglected neighborhoods and bleak visions of the future? Better schools, which will lift our young people’s hearts and minds above their current challenges and gives them a sense of what’s possible.

How do we encourage young people to put off childrearing until they are ready? Better schools, which will raise their aspirations and show them a clear path to college and/or an enticing career.

How do we help young people attain at least “medium-level” skills so that they need not toil in minimum-wage jobs all their lives? Better schools, including better career-technical schools, which will develop those skills (academic, social, emotional, and otherwise).

Do you in fact not believe that tomorrow’s schools, like those of yesterday, can be lighthouses that help young people find a brighter future? And if you share my faith in the power of great schools, how can we help educators see their role as a point of pride, rather than something that feels like an accusation?

– Mike Petrilli

This article originally appeared on the Bridging Differences blog, where Mike Petrilli is debating Deborah Meier.

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