Can Higher Education Solve America’s Economic Crisis?

(And if It Can, Then Why Does America Still Have an Economic Crisis?)

Many of America’s most serious problems are linked to the state of its economy. Consider: income inequality has been increasing for the past three decades; too many of today’s jobs pay far less than did the jobs that disappeared during the Great Recession; most family incomes are flat or declining, leading to a sense of economic deprivation that promotes depression, family strife, and alcohol and drug abuse. The stridency and deep political divisions we have seen in recent years owe, at least in part, to the seemingly irreconcilable differences of opinion regarding the right path forward for our nation, specifically whether that path should consist of more, or fewer, hands-on programs by the federal government aimed at strengthening the economy.

The thesis underlying this collection of eight essays is that our country’s economic problems are solvable, that the malaise in which we find ourselves today need not be permanent, and that the driver of the new economy, the change agent that we need to employ, is higher education — but not higher education as we have traditionally known it. Rather, we need to think about creating public-private partnerships on a far larger scale, with institutions of higher education working with business, industry, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the one hand, and local, state, and federal governments on the other, to develop shared expectations of outcomes in which all of the partners are winners. The highly disaggregated and inequitable system of higher education practices we have today, wobbling precariously on a flimsy base of tradition and complacency, must be replaced with something far more integrated, one grounded on a solid foundation of evidence, and with a clear and realizable purpose.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s begin at the beginning.

Part 1: 

What Are the Factors Creating Our Economic Crisis? Analyzing Opposing Opinions and Reconciling Contradictory Conclusions

Is America still in crisis economically? Or have we now recovered from the hangover of the Great Recession?

In a world where contrary information is promptly labeled as “alternative facts” or “fake news,” it is difficult to identify a common data set on which all can agree — and, absent such an agreement, it is impossible to answer those questions, let alone to develop a consensus path forward. But at least some of the confusion can be eliminated by a careful analysis of what is being said. The old adage of the blind men describing an elephant is useful to us here.

Employment is up/workforce participation is down

Both statements are true.

In 2016, the United States added 2.2 million new jobs, and 1.4 million additional jobs were added in the first eight months of 2017.[1] The unemployment rate has fallen markedly over the last eight years, and now stands at 4.1 percent, the lowest rate of unemployment since 2001[2]. But the percentage of people of working age who are actually employed has fallen dramatically since the Great Recession, and this drop is especially acute for those with no college degree. Among men aged 25 – 54, 94.5 per cent were employed in 1980, but only 88.5 percent are employed today.[3] This is one of the lowest percentages among economically developed countries. The comparable figure in Japan today, for example, is 95.5 percent. So we have the apparent paradox of a low level of unemployment coupled with a historically low percentage of employed people.

And the problem is not just that there are many more people of employment age who are not working today, as compared to 2008. One-third of these non-working people are receiving disability payments, and an equal number are estimated to be using prescription pain medications, most of which are opioids.[4] The absence of a job detracts significantly from the quality of life for these people, and burdens society with Medicaid and welfare costs much higher than they were a decade or two ago — and the inability of prospective workers to pass drug tests keeps them unemployed[5].

Incomes are rising/incomes are stagnant

Both statements are true.

In inflation-adjusted dollars, median individual income peaked in 1973. Median family income, because women continued to join the workforce, did not peak until 1997—but since then, the percentage of women in the workforce has declined, as increasing numbers of women of working age have left the workforce to care for aging family members.[6]  In the last two years, the median family income has increased by 3.2 percent, to $59,059, but is still 2.4 percent lower than in 1999, and 1.6 percent lower than in 2007.[7]

But it is also true that median income does not capture the full story. Incomes have actually fallen for much of the workforce — notably, those toward the bottom of the income scale — even as they have risen, often dramatically, for those near the top of the scale. For example, over the past decade, and measured in inflation-adjusted dollars, median household income has fallen by $571 for families in the bottom quintile of income, and risen by $13,479 for families in the top quintile.[8] Moreover, the traditional bell curve of incomes, in which most workers were near the middle of the range, has inverted such that incomes are clustered toward the ends of the curve, with far fewer workers in the mid-range.

So some workers have seen a significant increase in earnings in recent years, even as others have waited in vain for salary increases, or have been forced to accept jobs paying significantly less than their pre-Great Recession jobs.

Whether incomes are seen as improving or not is very much an individual perspective.

The economy is barely growing/the economy continues to improve

National economic growth is measured quarterly, and is always subject to subsequent revision as more comprehensive data later become available. Thus, it is not unusual to see a particular figure announced (to widespread gloom or fanfare, depending on the number), only to see that figure adjusted upward or downward months later.

The point is, making statements about the state of the economy based on the latest quarterly number is risky and ultimately not particularly helpful. (For example, quarterly increases over the past eight quarters have ranged from 0.2 percent to 3.1 percent.[9]) On the other hand, historic data over many quarters reveal a much more useful picture of how well the economy has been doing. As measured in that way, the growth of the American economy over the past decade has been tepid at best (only five of the 52 quarters in the past 13 years grew at 4 percent or better[10]), and growth has not yet returned to levels typically seen following the end of a recession.

The takeaway is that our economy has fundamentally changed since the Great Recession of 2008, because the nature of the jobs available has changed. Low-skill, service jobs have proliferated, but they pay poorly. (For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be 4-million new jobs in health care over the next decade, and more than 400,000 of those jobs will be for home health aides — but the median salary of home health aides, a job requiring only a high school diploma, is just $22,600.[11]) Certain well-paying high-skill jobs will continue to be abundant — but millions of mid-level jobs in the trades and especially in manufacturing have disappeared, and are not coming back.

The economy is divided into haves and have-nots — and there are far too many of the latter for our economy to be called “robust.” Too many Americans are living at or near poverty levels, a circumstance that should not be acceptable to anyone who cares about the quality of life of the American people. For these unemployed or underemployed members of our society, the economy is still very much in crisis. Our collective challenge is to prepare workers for the jobs of today and tomorrow, rather than waiting in vain for yesterday’s jobs to return.

America needs a change in the status quo, in terms of educational attainment levels, and Americans cannot assume that our current educational models are up for the task. (If they were, we wouldn’t be still having the problem of far too many marginally employed people.) And all Americans must collectively own this responsibility, rather than idly standing by, waiting for someone else to assume it for us.

How might this task best be accomplished? Next week: Tax cuts or education stimulus?

[1] “Incomes Jump, Adding Twist To Tax Battle,” The New York Times, September 13, 2017

[2] “Yellen’s Legacy: Progress, But a Sense of a Job Unfinished,” The New York Times, November 3, 2017

[3] “Labor Shortage Gives Workers an Edge,” The New York Times, September 20, 2017

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Workers Needed, but Drug Testing Takes a Toll,” The New York Times, July 25, 2017

[6] “The Weight of Elder Care on Women,” The New York Times, December 20, 2017

[7] “Incomes Jump, Adding Twist to Tax Battle,” The New York Times, September 13, 2017

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Economy’s 3% Spurt Emboldens Tax Cut Supports (and Critics),” The New York Times, October 28, 2017

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Without changes in education, the future of work will leave more people behind,” The Hechinger Report, October 31, 2017



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