Education and poverty, again

Erik Loomis wrote about the Diane Ravitch v. Michelle Rhee stuff. I don’t care about the majority of the content of this conflict. More arts funding? Ok I guess. I don’t know. I didn’t particularly like arts classes. I liked gym class. How about more of that? I don’t know: leave it to some pedagogy experts or something to figure out.

But I come in when Loomis writes this about Rhee: “Rhee says that we can’t solve poverty until we solve education. This is absurd on the face of it.” Anyone who says this is an enemy of poor people, full stop. And there are plenty. Recall earlier Arne Duncan said it: “What I fundamentally believe and what the president believes […] is that the only way to end poverty is through education.”

To be super clear, let’s distinguish between three claims here:

  1. Education is a way to end poverty.
  2. Education is the best way to end poverty.
  3. Education is the only way to end poverty.

These are all false, but since number three is the one Rhee and Duncan and the education reformer crowd pushes, let’s start there. It is flatly not the case that to end poverty you need to alter education. Americans should know this. Starting from the 1960s, we as a society cut outrageously high rates of elderly poverty by 71%. We did that by sending old people checks called Social Security. We also know from international data that low-poverty countries get that way through tax and transfer schemes, not unlike Social Security (I, II). If you are saying nothing but education will dramatically cut poverty, when things other than education absolutely will and have, you are an enemy of the poor. You are contributing to a discursive world where people ignore the easiest, most proven ways to cut poverty. You are a bad person.

Now let’s focus our attention on number one, that education is a way to reduce poverty. In fact, we have dramatically ramped up educational attainment in the US in the last forty years or so and market poverty has not taken a dive. As a basic logical matter, being more educated doesn’t make you less poor. Having more money makes you less poor. So education, even if you think it is necessary, is not sufficient to end poverty. You need distributive institutions that actually generate a specific distributive result, and education is certainly not sufficient for ensuring that happens. A more educated populace will probably be more productive, but that too — as we have seen for the last four decades — is not sufficient for ensuring the gains of such productivity increases flow to the non-rich. Education is good, but sufficient for solving poverty it is not.

Finally we get to number two, that education is the best way to reduce poverty. Since it is not even sufficient for reducing poverty, this is wrong. But even if it were sufficient for reducing poverty, all of the international and domestic evidence we have indicates that the best way to cut poverty in a rich, developed country like this is to simply change the distribution of income in society. It’s not hard. If the pre-tax distribution of income is no good (and it isn’t), you just tax and transfer money around. That is the proven way to dramatically cut poverty. It is surely the best way to do so, not education.

I can’t tell if education reformers are stupid, riddled with ideology, or just trying to make their projects seem grander than they are. But when they say you can’t solve poverty without education, they are wrong wrong wrong. If they don’t stop saying it, they should rightly be understood as antagonistic to the interests of poor people.