What if, instead of plucking out a few lucky children from
a poor, distressed neighborhood who would get enough support
and intervention to rise above their environment and make
it, you targeted enough services—cradle to college, parenting
classes, Head Start, healthy in-school meals and on—to enough
kids (over half, no creaming) and added in neighborhood improvements,
from community organizing to vacant lot reclamation, so that
you changed the odds of the whole neighborhood?
Pretty great, no? This is the Harlem Children’s Zone, upon
which Promise Neighborhoods, one of the many exciting, ambitious
programs to come out of the Obama administration, is modeled.
Promise Neighborhoods was officially announced on April 30,
and will offer 20 large planning grants to cities that want
to follow HCZ’s lead. It carries many of the signatures of
this administration’s style: comprehensive, targeted, results-oriented,
and I think it’s pretty great.
There is one thing about it that has been getting under my
skin though: It keeps being called an anti-poverty program,
by the administration and by its advocates and supporters
in the nonprofit and educational worlds.
One of these days, folks, we have to face it: education does
not cure poverty. Jobs cure poverty.
Yes, of course, for an individual, a good education can be
the means out of poverty. And yes, every child deserves a
good education, period.
The various elements of Promise Neighborhoods—services and
education and neighborhood improvement—also go a long way
toward making being poor not suck so much, which is an absolutely
worthy goal by itself.
And yes, redressing educational inequities will level the
playing field, giving everyone a more equal shot at the jobs
that do exist, which is also important (not in the least because
it will reduce the stigma on helping those who don’t have
one at the moment). If we give the education-as-anti-poverty-idea
the biggest benefit of the doubt we can, we can say that having
a better educated population across the board in this country
might help us keep more globally exported jobs (though that
doesn’t reduce global poverty) and investing in children’s
health and literacy and supporting families may mean we can
eventually redirect some public spending from jails and clinics
to public works and creating jobs. But I’m starting to feel
like I’m reaching here.
The fact is, as long as people who already have masters degrees
are vying for barista jobs, more education will not reduce
the total amount of poverty. Redistributing the pie crumbs
does not reduce hunger. The idea that having more qualified
workers generates more jobs is a pipe dream. As Edward Royce
points out in his brilliant and thorough takedown of common
understandings of where poverty comes from, Poverty &
Power, jobs requiring higher levels of education have
increased more slowly than the number of people with more
education over the past 25 years in this country. In 2002,
20 to 55 percent of American workers were overqualified for
their jobs. (On the other hand, during the dot com boom, unemployment
fell, even among the hardest-to-reach populations as companies
who needed workers went about training them themselves.)
American economic system, at least under current conditions,
simply cannot accommodate the supply of willing workers, and
even less can it guarantee a good job to everyone who truly
wants one,” writes Royce (before the housing bubble burst).
“This is precisely what makes poverty a structural problem:
it originates not from the deficiencies of the poor, but from
political and economic forces limiting opportunities for decent
So what is an anti-poverty strategy? Simple to say,
even if not so simple to do. It has three parts. (1) Create
jobs: There is a lot of work that needs to be done. We need
billions of dollars of infrastructure upgrades—fixing roads
and bridges, building public transit, coming into the 21st
century of broadband, rehabbing and weatherizing homes and
schools, restoring degraded ecosystems, transitioning our
energy sources. We need more teachers, more counselors, more
farmers. All of these things will create the conditions for
a functioning private market to rebuild itself.
(2) Improve the jobs we have so fewer of them keep their workers
impoverished: Living wages. Paid sick time. Long-term paid
family leave. Flex time. Shorter work weeks. Plus, rein in
the idiotic excesses of those at the top to reduce the bubbles
that give us recessions like this. Even better, support the
growth of worker-owned cooperative businesses like the ones
founded in Mondragón, Spain, that now employ hundreds of thousands
of Basques and compete globally while putting the needs of
workers above the needs of shareholders—a model which is being
replicated in Cleveland through the Evergreen Cooperatives.
And, finally, (3) keep a strong safety net for those who are
out of work: As long as we have a system that doesn’t operate
with full employment, fighting poverty has to include a basic
floor for those who are out of work, unable to work, or underemployed—rental
assistance, food stamps, Medicaid, etc.
Then we also support Promise Neighborhoods and community colleges
and prison literacy programs and better schools and all those
other things that work to make job opportunities open to all.
But without the opportunity there to be had, those programs
by themselves, wonderful as they are, are not anti-poverty
programs, and we hide the real issue by calling them so.