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Over Promising

Imagine: 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.)

“The 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 employment.”

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.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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