Can Economic Prospects for the Middle Class Be Improved?


Donald Trump was elected President last fall because of his surprising and unexpected strength with blue-collar workers. These folks have had a rough time in the 21st century economy: high unemployment, unstable marriages, opioid addition, lower longevity, etc.

My last post discusses a new book by Richard Reeves which makes the case that the real inequality in the U.S. is between the top 20% (the upper middle class) and the lower 80%.  The upper middle class are mostly the well-educated professionals who benefit from the modern high-tech global economy.  Mr. Reeves believes that this elite group is so entrenched with privileges as to be self-perpetuating. His response to this situation is to try to expand opportunity more widely by, for example:

  • Reducing unintended pregnancies through better contraception by making LARCs (long-acting reversible contraceptives) more widely available to free more young women from the burden of unwanted children.
  • Expanding access to early childhood education including home visitation to give a big preschool boost especially to kids from low-income families.
  • Getting better teachers for unlucky kids by giving teachers a substantial bonus to teach in high poverty schools. This will attract better teachers to the more challenging schools.
  • Funding college more fairly. Free college is a terrible idea. It would just be yet another boondoggle for the upper middle class. All student debt repayment should be income-based. The status of vocational postsecondary learning (at community colleges) should be elevated.

Conclusion. The idea here is not to pull down those who are well off but rather to give more people the opportunity to succeed in the modern economy. Of course, faster economic growth is another way to create more and better paying jobs.  But faster economic growth has its own limitations and, at any rate, is difficult to achieve with a rapidly aging population.  I will return to this topic soon!

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The Link between Education and Prosperity, Part II: Educare

In my previous post, “The Link between Education and Prosperity”, I looked at data from Paul Peterson and Eric Hanushek which show a very close connection between high school academic achievement and rate of economic growth for various countries around the world.  They point out, for example, that only 32% of U.S. high school students are proficient in mathematics, as compared to 49% in Canada, and that closing this achievement gap would boost our rate of GDP growth by almost 1%.  But they also point out that the math proficiency rate for white students in the U.S. is 42% with much lower proficiency rates for both African American and Hispanic students.  In other words, almost 2/3 of the American-Canadian math proficiency gap can be explained by poor performance of American minority students, many of whom grow up in poverty.
In yesterday’s New York Times, James Heckman, a Nobel prize winner in economics, has an article “Lifelines for Poor Children” which points out the importance of investing in effective early childhood development from birth to age 5.  “High-quality early childhood programs are great economic and social equalizers – they supplement the family lives of disadvantaged children by teaching consistent parenting and by giving children the mentoring, encouragement and support available to functioning middle-class families.”
High quality early childhood education is expensive and it is very important for all levels of government, especially at the federal level, to operate more efficiently.  How is it possible to expand early childhood education under such very tight financial constraints?
The key is to build it into our existing Head Start program on which we are currently spending over $8 billion per year.  Many experts acknowledge that academic gains from Head Start are short lived, seldom persisting even into 3rd grade.  But there are existing models for much more effective early childhood education, such as the program run by Educare in Omaha and other cities.
In short there is a cost effective way to provide “lifelines for poor children”, for their own good and also for the benefit of society as a whole, and we should expect our national leaders to move in this direction.

Education Reform Is Speeding Up


A front page article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “Biggest Changes in a Decade Greet Students in Classroom”, discusses many new and recent developments in K-12 education.  The controversial Common Core, with tougher math and reading standards, has been adopted by 45 states.  A total of 41 states have agreed to link teacher evaluations to test scores or other student achievement measures and 15 states use, or plan to use, an A – F grading scale to rate schools.  Last year there were 5997 charter schools, up from 2559 during the 2002-2003 school year.
What all of this means is that states are hotbeds of educational experimentation.  Meanwhile Congress is trying to figure out how to replace the unpopular No Child Left Behind law which was enacted in 2002 and has been renewed on a year by year basis since it expired in 2007.  Both the Senate and the House are currently considering legislation to give individual states more flexibility in figuring out how to increase educational success.
The fiscal implications of this whole movement of educational reform and decentralization are huge.  The U.S. Department of Education has over 100 separate programs for K-12 education alone, involving massive duplication and inefficiency, with a combined budget of $100 billion per year.  A smaller total amount of money could be given directly to the states in the form of block grants devoted to education.  The states are able to spend the money more effectively than the federal DoE and at less total cost.  Conclusion: better results for significantly less money.
This helps reduce the deficit!

Should Nebraska Adopt the Common Core Standards?


Yesterday’s New York Times has an article by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus “Who’s Minding the Schools?”, which makes a strong case against the so called Common Core education standards already adopted by 45 states.  Their argument is that the standards are a “one-size-fits-all pathway governed by abstract academic content” which will primarily benefit the affluent middle class students who have strong parental support and who will go on to attend selective colleges.
About a year ago Mr. Hacker wrote another NYT article “Is Algebra Necessary?”, pointing out all the grief resulting from requiring high school students to learn algebra.  The Common Core standards have a strong algebra component and so they will tend to solidify the expectation that all high school students study algebra and learn it well.  This is an especially big challenge for low income and minority students who have the least academic success in high school and are the most likely to drop out before graduation.
Both the U.S. Senate and the House are currently considering legislation to renew No Child Left Behind by giving states more flexibility in figuring out how to increase educational success for their own students.  This makes a lot of sense and should make it possible to cut back substantially on the approximately $100 billion per year spent by the federal Department of Education on grants to the various states.  In other words, for various reasons there is currently taking place a shift in educational policy to give more control and responsibility back to the states.  The Common Core standards are attempting to move things towards more federal control and therefore are likely to face very strong headwinds.