Education is not a cure for inequality or poverty

In his column today, David Brooks furthered the argument that education is the key to reducing inequality, improving one’s lot, etc, etc. He says that

“when you look at the details, you find that most
inequality is caused by a rising education premium, by changes
in household and family structure, by the fact that the rich now
work longer hours than the less rich and by new salary structures
that are more tied to individual performance.”

He argues for a lot of swell policies that would make a difference in a
lot of people’s lives. But he (along with so many other intelligent people) overlooks a tragic flaw in this argument: while a better education will certainly benefit any given individual, that does not mean that better educations for everyone will benefit everyone. A little thought experiment might make this point clearer. Suppose that everyone in the US (or the world for that matter) got PhDs. Surely they would all be better off, right? [Insert joke about PhD meaning permanent head damage here]. Wrong! It would just mean that you would have even more over-educated people stuck greeting people at Walmart. This argument is a version of Say’s Law: an old economics chestnut that claims that supply creates its own demand. It’s the Field of Dreams argument: “build it and they will come.”

Unfortunately, in the real world we inhabit the number of jobs
available for highly educated people seems to be driven less by
the number of highly educated people around (the supply) and more
by the actual demand for their services. And the structure of the job
market in the US has remained remarkably stable: very few high-paying
jobs for which highly specialized skills are required, lots more jobs
for which no or few skills (at least not the kind you get in graduate
or undergraduate school, for that matter) are required and for which
the pay is, shall we say, not so good.

So by all means, lets invest in what Brooks and others call “human
capital” and other folks just call a quality education. But let’s not kid
ourselves that it will produce a demand for highly-educated people.

One comment

  • Did the abolition of slavery reduce inequity or poverty? Of course it did.

    This country has some suburban school districts spending twice as much per pupil as there urban counterparts. Neither have the liberal arts education of private schools.

    Liberal Arts are the arts of a free person. Is it any wonder the extremely wealthy send their children? If a child in the ghetto went to Andover or Exeter might that not level the playing field.