The hottest trend in education right now seems to be buying an iPad for every student, especially in high poverty schools. By providing tablets to students who may not have computer access at home, the theory goes, we can ensure all children in America have the skills they need to succeed in a 21st century economy.
But the sudden popularity of iPads among school administrators despite opposition from many teachers and parents should raise questions: Are iPads actually the most effective tool to bridge the digital divide? If our education system is preparing low-income children for the 21st century, what role are they being trained to play: producers of digital content or consumers of it?
Working at a community group engaging the public in major decisions on spending new funding in several California school districts, I’ve encountered mostly negative reactions to the iPad trend. Teachers bemoan distracted students (LA schools recalled their iPads after students figured out within a week how to unblock access to sites like Facebook and YouTube). Parents worry that children will get jumped walking home in rough neighborhoods with iPads in their backpacks. Most students are happy to get a free iPad, but often say they think it’s a waste of money when compared with other more urgent school needs.
With such thin community support, why are they being adopted at such a ferocious pace? Part of the answer is Common Core, new education standards where testing is now done on computers. Another part is strong marketing from Apple, who reaps major profits by controlling a staggering 94% of the market for school tablets. (While building long-term brand loyalty from a huge future customer base.) Finally, superintendents face an incentive to spend funds on things like iPads for everyone, which are highly visible and often generate positive media attention, rather than something like restoring furlough days cut from the school calendar, which is barely noticed by the public.
None of this is to argue against school districts investing in technology. I believe in integrating technology in schools and I’ve personally benefitted from these efforts. My elementary school in the 90’s was stocked with donated Apple computers, which I remember exploring with awe. I attended a technology magnet high school that had classes from video editing to web design to computer repair, as well as a mandatory tech literacy curriculum, which included learning to use Excel, Powerpoint, Publisher, Photoshop and even create basic Flash animation. I rolled my eyes at being forced to learn these programs then, but now use most of them on a regular basis at work.
Schools should be making targeted efforts to close the digital divide. More and more, college classes and middle-class jobs assume a basic level of computer skills. A lack of familiarity with Microsoft Excel or Powerpoint can cripple the career success of people from low-income families.
But the digital divide is more complicated than it appears. Surprisingly enough, smartphone ownership in the US is actually higher among blacks and Latinos than whites. We live in a society that’s difficult to participate in without the internet and many low-income families who can’t afford home computers or wi-fi use smartphones as their primary source of internet access.
The real digital divide isn’t about unequal access to mobile technology like smartphones and tablets. It’s about unequal access to real computers.
Here’s the difference: computers are producer tools, tablets are consumer tools.
If you teach a kid from a poor family how to use a tablet to surf the web, he/she has learned how to be a consumer of online content. But if you want him/her to learn how to make a webpage, rather than just look at one, they’ll probably need to learn on a computer, not an iPad.
But this isn’t just about teaching children to be web designers and software engineers. A major barrier that shuts low-income people out of white collar jobs in general is lack of more basic computer skills like being able to make a slideshow presentation for a meeting, design a simple publication about a topic, analyze and manipulate a spreadsheet of data, or even type quickly on a keyboard. None of these are skills you learn on an iPad.
It’s hard to predict the advances of technology, and maybe in twenty years I’ll look back and think this was naïve of me to say. But at a fundamental level, the whole point of a tablet is simplicity and mobility—it’s a product intentionally kept simple to allow it to be small, slick and mobile—which means it’s meant to supplement computers, not replace them. A tablet’s main purpose is to easily access content that’s actually created on a computer.
Let’s ask ourselves what we’re really trying to do here: What’s the deeper shift we’re trying to create through these school tech initiatives? Are we trying to widen the consumer base for the tech industry by making it possible for more people to watch videos and read articles online? Or are we trying to create a world that opens access to low-income communities of color as not just consumers, but producers of digital content as well?
It’s not only more cost effective, but more useful to invest in shared computer labs at school sites where students can learn to actually make things: Whether it’s writing code, editing videos, doing graphic design, turning data into charts and graphs, or making powerpoints and posters, these are 21st century skills that empower rather than commodify students.
If we’re about real meaningful access to the 21st century economy—about kids having a fair shot at living wage jobs and getting out of poverty—iPads for everyone is not the answer.
This weekend I took a group of high school students out to clean a beach next to a toxic slag heap Superfund site that will hopefully be cleaned up by the EPA in about a decade. It’s one of the last remaining natural wetlands in California, home to endangered species, and in the process of being restored by the Nature Conservancy. The beach is largely cut off from pedestrian access by decaying industrial sites and marked by the towering smoke stacks of a power plant. I rarely meet youth from the surrounding low-income immigrant neighborhood who have ever been there prior to volunteering to clean it up. Hopefully someday it will be restored for public access, but for now the city government seems intent on developing more crap on top of it.
For me and my organization, bringing students out to this site for cleanups is more about engaging them in the broader environmental battles in the community. But we do the cleanups because that’s what the students tell us they want to do. Young people in America have a deeply ingrained idea of what community service is and what it isn’t. Teenagers are endlessly told to go clean the beach and give soup to the homeless and help children with their homework. They’re told it’s the alternative activity to gangs and drugs and they need to do it to get into college.
The commonly accepted form of community service is about being helpful and doing what an adult tells you to do. It’s not about generating controversy or engaging in power struggles or advocating for deeper change. In fact, youth are explicitly discouraged from doing those things by both their educational institutions and their parents. Community service, as it’s practiced, is about accepting the society you live in and trying to ameliorate the problems it’s created, not about challenging the conditions of that society and how it could be different.
Why are we telling youth to clean up natural habitats we allow corporations to pollute? What kind of a country makes children sell magazines to shore up the cost of the schools we’re unwilling to pay more taxes to fund? If we really believe all human beings deserve enough food to survive, how do we justify cutting food stamps while asking students to volunteer at food pantries?
Sometimes I can’t shake the feeling that as a country we’re taking the people most capable of questioning our assumptions and re-imagining our world and keeping them busy cleaning up the shit we’re creating. Maybe it comes from our condescending assumption that young people can’t make up their minds for themselves about anything contentious, that youth wanting to participate in anything that looks “political” must be the product of manipulation and brainwashing.
I want a world where high school student groups like National Honor Society and Key Club speak at school board meetings and march in rallies and write letters to the editor and get out the vote. I want a world where guidance counselors tell students to serve on a city commission to build their college application and city councilmembers actually appoint them. I want a world where parents suggest helping at a soup kitchen on Christmas and campaigning for a higher minimum wage on Election Day.
I’m not calling for an end to community service. I’m calling for a radical opening of our understanding of what it means to serve our communities. I’m calling for a broadening of the role we expect youth to have in our communities. We should be asking young people to take the role of leadership in the public sphere, producing new ideas and participating in decision-making. That’s the kind of service we admire in business leaders and elder statesmen and public intellectuals but feel uncomfortable with youth engaging in.
More and more schools are requiring community service for graduation because in a world where students are bombarded with messages about competition and achievement and test scores it’s worth teaching there’s more to life than earning good grades to get a high-paying job.
But educators, nonprofits, and parents should be teaching young people that the community doesn’t just need your menial labor, but also needs your ideas. And your courage to raise your voice and challenge us to build a better world is by far the most valuable service you can give to your community.
On Monday the NY Times covered a fascinating new study on social mobility. As you can see from the map above, there’s huge variation in the likelihood a kid from a low-income family will end up making it out of poverty depending on where they live.
Despite popular misconceptions about the “American Dream”, kids who grow up poor in the US are less likely to climb into the middle and upper classes than their counterparts in Western Europe, Canada, etc. This is a phenomenon dubbed “The Great Gatsby Curve”— countries with high levels of inequality also have low levels of mobility– i.e. if the rungs on the ladder are farther apart, it’s harder to climb the ladder. Poor kids in the US suffer from a weaker social safety net, worse health care and nutrition, more unstable housing, limited access to childcare, preschool, and college, and have to compete with rich kids who are even richer than kids in other countries (and have the resulting advantages in life).
Now let’s assume the American Dream is not just some bullshit platitude and we really do care about opportunity for all, regardless of the circumstances of one’s birth.
We might be feeling pretty hopeless right now. Fixing America’s crisis of inequality sounds overwhelming, and this useless Congress has a snowball’s chance in hell of creating any costly new social programs like universal preschool.
But what this study says to me is that it’s possible to make a significant difference at the local level. The trap of intergenerational poverty in places like Atlanta, Memphis, and Charlotte might be worse than any country in the industrialized world. But places like Salt Lake City, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Seattle have social mobility comparable to places like Norway and Denmark.
What explains the differences? Why are rags-to-riches stories in Chicago much less common than its rival metropolises of NY and LA? Why is a poor kid in San Francisco twice as likely to become successful as a poor kid in St. Louis? Can growing up poor in Seattle really give you four times better of a chance in life than in Memphis?
When you look at the map, the worst regions are clearly the Deep South and the urban industrial core of the Midwest. I associate these areas with entrenched black-white patterns of inequality and segregation. But the article notes that in cities like Atlanta, while opportunities to rise in society are scarce for poor blacks, they are just as scarce for poor whites. Maybe communities like Atlanta are more likely to see poverty in racialized terms (“Those people are not like me”), weakening their support of attempts to advance opportunities for poor folks of all races.
But let’s get into the nitty-gritty.
The authors were looking for proof that tax credits aimed at reducing child poverty like the EITC lead to better social mobility. But unfortunately they found that local tax policies had only a small correlation with class mobility.
So what can we do to at the local level to increase opportunity? Which of these factors is most easily and clearly impacted by public policy?
It’s interesting to note that the factors that most strongly correlate with lack of opportunity are things you might associate with a social conservative policy agenda: promoting traditional family structures, community ties, and religious participation. So why then is the South, the heartland of social conservatism, the huge red swath on the map with the least opportunity? I’d argue this is because social conservative policies are extremely ineffective at actually accomplishing things like reducing teen birthrates, and often counterproductive (see: birth control, sex ed).
I don’t think anywhere in America we’ve actually developed effective policies to make people have stronger family ties or be more active in their communities. (I do think we could mitigate some of the negative effects of widespread single motherhood with things like universal preschool and paid maternal leave though.)
Unfortunately the factors most directly tied to government policy (college tuition, local public spending, etc.) are at the bottom of the list. Seems like if state/local governments want to raise social mobility the best thing they can do is increase per-pupil school funding, but even that has a pretty weak correlation. Clearly the focus should be on reducing high school dropouts, but how exactly policymakers should do that is the tougher question.
I think the most interesting part of this study is the link it establishes between social mobility and segregation along racial and economic class lines. In a sprawled out, highly segregated city like Atlanta, people in poor black neighborhoods are much more isolated from decent job opportunities, good schools, social networks and other resources.
Cities and counties should be paying close attention to this. Plan dense, walkable, mixed-income neighborhoods. Provide quality public transit connecting low-income communities to job and educational opportunities. Focus economic development and infrastructure spending on the urban center, not just on the suburban outskirts. Don’t allow wealthy NIMBYs to block affordable housing in the suburbs and don’t allow developers to gentrify poor people out of revitalizing urban neighborhoods. Smart growth is not just about sustainability and hippy shit. It’s about the goddamn American Dream. It’s about everyone having a fair chance to make it. Bald eagles and apple pie and all that.
Last but not least, for the community organizers out there: Notice that “Social Capital Index” there at the top? That measures people’s civic engagement and level of involvement in community groups. Whether you’re organizing community activists to increase school funding, provide subsidized childcare or better public transit, the act of organizing people itself enhances economic opportunity as much as any policy change. Helping strengthen people’s ties to each other and to their community is one of the key foundations of social mobility. The best thing we can do is organize from the grassroots to make this American Dream a reality.
Let me start off by saying that elections get way more emphasis than they should, and that most of the real work of social change happens in the aftermath, pressuring elected officials to do the right thing.
But that being said, elections really do matter, and this one was truly beautiful.
To me this election confirmed my belief that we are at the beginning of a movement time, one of those eras when waves of progress seem to come all at once. You’re looking at me like I’m crazy. But it’s a lot more messy and uncertain when you’re experiencing it live than when we look back in the history books. Here’s my case for why I think progressives are going to win huge victories in the coming years.
But here’s my 7 Reasons Why Last Night Was The Best Night Ever:
1. Barack Obama is our president and we never have to hear about Mitt Romney again. In terms of policy change, I’m not that excited about this– honestly the next four years will look like the last two years– Republican Congress, total gridlock, not much getting done. Basically they just gave a black man the worst job in the world for another four years.
What was significant about the presidential race was that in the age of Citizens United, Wall St. wasn’t able to buy this election. Finance normally hedges their bets by giving to both parties or the expected winner. But after the major financial reforms enacted by the Obama administration, they went all in for Romney. And lost. When was the last time Wall St. lost anything except your money? Now I hope Obama has the cojones to give them some ice cold retribution. I’m also happy that in the darkest hour of the campaign, right after the first debate, I still called the election for Obama. Saying I told you so is the best.
2. The youth vote made an even larger impact than in 2008. I was so sick of all the bullshit narratives about apathetic young people who came out in 2008 for a fluke because they were brainwashed by Obama and won’t vote anymore because now they’re stupid and lazy blah blah blah. Oh what’s that? Young people made up 19% of the vote in 2012, EVEN MORE than in 2008? SUCK. ON. THAT. SHIT.
3. California passed Prop 30 and defeated Prop 32. This is near and dear to my heart because it’s what I’ve been working on this election. I think the incredible thing about Prop 30 is it’s a turning point. Since Prop 13 passed in the “tax revolt” of the late 70’s, California has been on the path of endless budget cuts to education. Yesterday we turned this around– the voters chose to invest in our youth and our future. In concrete terms, this resulted in a tuition freeze at the UC’s this year instead of a 20% fee hike. And Prop 32, which may have actually been more important than 30 for big picture strategic reasons, went down too. This all despite millions of dollars spent against us by billionaires and Super PACs who are now being investigated for money laundering. I worked with dozens of high school and community college students who spent countless hours volunteering to get out the vote because they knew their future depended on it. I’m so proud of them.
4. In California, Democrats will likely win 2/3rds supermajorities in both the State Assembly and State Senate. Some close races have ballots left to be counted, but newspapers are already calling it. This is a big fucking deal. Much of California’s budget craziness is due to the fact that you need a 2/3rds vote to raise taxes, or until recently, to approve the budget at all. The California Republican Party has become increasingly isolated and radical, viewing any compromise as a sign of weakness, making it nearly impossible to get the couple of extra votes needed to pass no-brainer bills like the Middle Class Scholarship Act. The bill would have closed a corporate tax loophole that benefits out-of-state corporations and used the money to slash college tuition by 60% for most students in California but failed this year. But this also opens up huge new opportunities. Some of these Dems are pretty conservative, and will be reluctant to vote for more revenue. But with a Democratic supermajority and some good organizing, you could potentially get single payer health care in California, or universal preschool, or dramatically reduce college tuition. As I said, big fucking deal.
5. The next Congress will have more women than any Congress in American history. Women candidates broke records in both the House and the Senate. One of these women, Tammy Baldwin, is the first openly-gay Senator ever.
6. Marriage equality made major strides. Maine and Maryland voted to legalize gay marriage, and Washington looks like it’s on its way. The tide is moving, it’s only a matter of time.
7. We can all stop talking about Bronco Bamma and Mitt Romney!
Also, bonus points. For my Ventura Couny folks, we were in one of the closest congressional races in the entire country, and the Democrat, Julia Brownley squeaked out a victory over Tony Strickland, a politician I personally can’t stand. And Measure S in Berkeley, which would have criminalized the homeless for sitting on the sidewalks, was defeated.
Pretty soon the Supreme Court is probably going to hammer the last nail in the coffin of affirmative action. The court will be hearing the case of Abigail Fisher next week, a young white woman who was denied admission to the University of Texas, Austin and blames it on affirmative action.
I think progressives should take this opportunity to give up on fighting for race-based affirmative action. Not because it’s a bad idea, but because those of us who care about equality in education will be much more strategic and effective fighting for class-based affirmative action.
First I want to explain why I’ve always been a supporter of race-based affirmative action. I think institutionalized racism is so deeply embedded in every facet of our society that people’s education and economic outcomes are strongly affected by it from the cradle to the grave. I know there are some deniers out there. But if that inequality of opportunity wasn’t real, then why do racial achievement gaps persist so strongly? Let’s say certain types of people usually seem to win a hypothetical contest millions of times over. You can only really come to two conclusions: Either those types of people have some unfair advantages in that contest, or they are just naturally better. I’m assuming nobody who reads this blog is going to say white people are on average naturally smarter. So that leaves unfair advantage. Because education is so critical to success in the modern world, if some groups enjoy an unfair advantage over others, we have a moral responsibility to fight that.
As a product of the University of California system, where affirmative action was banned in 1995 by Prop 209, I’ve seen the exciting sneak preview of how this Supreme Court case will likely turn out for the country:
Yeah it’s kinda like that.
California’s affirmative action ban has led to a campus filled mostly with kids from the upper-middle-class suburbs of the Bay Area and Los Angeles. The many attempts to promote racial diversity by the UC system since Prop 209 have largely failed.
But sometimes, it’s less important what you wish could happen, and more important what you can actually win.
This Supreme Court, the most conservative in modern history, will probably strike down race-based affirmative action. Neither the majority of the American public nor the majority of our elected officials seem interested in keeping it.
A good political strategist knows when to throw in the towel. But a better political strategist knows when to seemingly throw in the towel, and when their opponent raises their hands in victory, hit them in the chin with a dirty ass upper-cut.
Social justice activists could abandon attempts to defend race-based affirmative action while organizing a broader coalition around class-based affirmative action that includes low-income whites. This is probably more politically winnable, legally defensible, and may be just a better policy for achieving social justice.
I’d propose some kind of comprehensive economic disadvantage index that includes factors like a student’s household income, parents’ educational attainment, neighborhood poverty rate, and what percent of students from their high school go to college.
While this doesn’t address direct discrimination by college admissions officers, it would still work against the inequality affecting youth in communities of color. Students who make it through the barriers of growing up in East Oakland or South LA will still get recognition in college admissions for the struggles they faced.
More importantly, class-based affirmative action might do more to advance equity in education anyway.
The current racial categories used in admissions are not very accurate measures of students’ privilege or disadvantage. An observant college student might notice the disproportionate share of the campus’s black community whose parents immigrated from Africa and the Caribbean. Or the fact that virtually all the Asians on campus seem to be Korean, Taiwanese or Indian. Despite the fact that many Southeast Asian communities in the US have similar levels of poverty to African-Americans and Latinos, they get lumped in the same “Asian” category as wealthier groups like Indians. And even though black immigrant communities have higher education levels and lower poverty rates, they are treated the same as black communities struggling with the legacy of American slavery.
The struggle for racial justice today is largely defined by the institutionalized racism that leads to deep and persistent poverty in communities of color. It’s a deep and complex web of oppression and no policy tool is going to be perfect.
But movements have to be built on victories. At a time when a backwards fall seems inevitable, class-based affirmative action is something we can win.
The New York Times reported recently that new enrollment at American graduate schools is dropping.
This seems crazy considering that over the last decade, only Americans with advanced degrees saw any wage growth. Even the average bachelor’s degree holder lost income.
So what’s wrong with the kids these days? Don’t those idiots know what’s good for them?
Well. Are you the kind of nerd that reads an article like that and goes “I want to learn more, maybe I should download the full report”? I am, and I did. And here’s what I found.
Graduate degrees in arts and humanities: plummeting.
Graduate degrees in math, engineering, and health sciences: still shooting through the roof.
Here’s my theory: When I was starting college, we thought we were facing a horrible crash that would recover within a few years like most recessions. So being in school was a great way to wait it out. The ivory tower was like an armored fortress to protect us from the evils of recession-land. Grad school applications soared. Now we’re realizing for some reason we seem to be stuck in a long-term stagnation and we won’t return to full employment for what’s technically known as a Long Ass Time. Unfortunately, most grad programs don’t last a Long Ass Time, so instead those people came out two years later with a ton of debt and a still-shitty-economy. People are no longer using graduate school as a shelter, they’re now only going if the program will actually improve their economic prospects when they finish.
A similar trend has happened as news spreads that going to law school is an increasingly bad economic decision. Last spring I obnoxiously gloated to my law school aspiring friends that the law school bubble had finally burst— after a seemingly endless rise, law school applicants had dropped tremendously over the past year.
But then, as if Christmas had come twice, I had even more news to gloat about: Among those with low LSAT scores, applications were still high. The real drop in applicants was happening at the top of the LSAT score range.
Weird, right? Why would the best and brightest potential lawyers stop applying to law school?
It probably means the smartest people are the ones most likely to read news about how there’s a glut of people with law degrees in the labor market. They’re the ones who hear about things like recent graduates suing their law schools for fudging impressive job placement statistics and decide to not go to law school.
Now I’m all for education having inherent value outside of pure money-making. But higher education has grown absurdly expensive and financial aid has failed to keep up. If you just want to open your mind or something like that, you can literally get a Harvard education for free through downloading podcasts of their classes. There are also hella books in these old fashioned things called libraries.
It’s not that you shouldn’t go to grad school. If you want to be a surgeon, go for it. Maybe some other professional schools. Only a non-professional school if you actually want to be a professor. If you’re doing it because you “don’t really know exactly what you want to do yet”, please do us all a favor and donate your tuition to a nonprofit organization. Seriously, here’s a link to mine, you can pay with credit card.
Bottom line: If young people are increasingly saying no to graduate programs that won’t pay off, that’s a good thing.
The Chicago teacher strike has sparked a heated debate about how much to blame teachers for America’s failing schools. I think this totally misses the point. American public schools aren’t failing in general, American public schools are failing poor people.
It’s time we start considering something a bit more uncomfortable. Maybe generations of education reforms to improve schools in low-income communities haven’t worked because the problem… is poverty itself?
The much-hyped failing schools you see in documentaries simply don’t exist in wealthy communities. There’s a reason they didn’t film Waiting for Superman at Bel Aire Elementary School. An unwitting viewer might then accidentally reach the conclusion that teachers unions were producing outstanding results in public schools.
In fact, even rich kids in failing urban school districts succeed. Despite the miserably low test scores of average Chicago public school students that have become a media feeding frenzy, for white children from non-poor English-speaking households, test scores in Chicago public schools are actually higher than the average school district. So if you’re a middle-class white parent in Chicago, you really should send your kids to those awful public schools– they’ll probably turn out great.
I’ve attended a low-performing public school in a low-income community and an outstanding public school, serving mostly middle and upper-middle class students. Both had teachers unions, tenure, bureaucratic school districts, and like any workplace, some people were just good at their jobs and some just weren’t.
So why the inequality? I want to get up on a mountaintop, grab a megaphone and yell “It’s the POVERTY, stupid!”
We’ve reached an odd consensus in Washington, where both Democrats and Republicans believe that teachers unions are the main barrier to improving the American education system. (Credit to Michelle Rhee for single-handedly permanently shifting the American political debate— not something most people can claim).
Yet only about one-third of the achievement gap can be explained by in-school factors. The remaining two-thirds are the result of factors outside of the school. When kids have poor nutrition or untreated health problems or unstable housing or parents who don’t have the time/education to read/talk to them in high vocabulary or they’re ducking bullets on the way to school, it makes an enormous impact on their ability to learn. Yes, teacher quality is the largest in-school variable affecting education outcomes, but most of the real difference is coming from influences outside the classroom.
I believe the reason the American education system has such a large disparity between rich and poor is because America has such a large disparity between rich and poor.
America’s education system is exceptionally bad compared to other countries at educational opportunity for low-income children. Not like that one country that attaches its own name to the word “Dream” to symbolize how they’re the land of opportunity. Oh wait. Fuck.
Well, at least there are other countries doing worse than us. Suck on that, Czech Republic!
Not only do we have high inequality in education between rich and poor students, unlike racial achievement gaps, it’s actually getting worse. Note that the big growth of this achievement gap has pretty closely mirrored the widening gap between rich and poor in the US from the late 70’s until today.
This all leads to what might seem like a dismal conclusion: Poor kids will never have high-performing schools. Even if Michelle Rhee personally teaches every one of them herself, spurred to work extra hard by the incentive of being constantly watched by a panel of parents who can drop her into a pit of spikes below the classroom with the pull of a lever.
Yes, that sounds depressing. But is it really?
I’m not saying we can’t close the achievement gap. I’m saying to address a problem, look at its root. And most of the root cause of this problem lies in factors outside the classroom related to poverty. Our political debate is totally ignoring the biggest root of the problem.
Yes, eliminating poverty in America seems harder than just converting all our schools to charter schools or replacing all teachers with TFA kids or some other education reform idea that hopefully doesn’t cost any money.
But we’ve made huge reductions in poverty before, during the War on Poverty in the 1960’s. We know how to do it, we just stopped caring a couple decades ago. In fact, I would say we know how to reduce poverty better than we know how to turn around failing schools.
Sure, we can still figure out how to make schools as effective as possible. But debating the best method of getting better schools for poor kids gives up on the radical idea that maybe those kids don’t have to be poor.
Although most of the chatter around Paul Ryan and his radical budget proposals has focused on his attacks on Medicare, the more brutal cuts he put forward are actually to Medicaid. The key distinction is that while Medicare is a universal social program whose benefits go to all elderly Americans, Medicaid provides healthcare primarily to low-income people, and thus must be extra offensive to people like Ryan.
In his convention speech Bill Clinton stressed how these cuts to Medicaid will actually affect many middle-class families too, because it includes funds for nursing homes and disabled children of all income levels.
Why would he say this? Because it makes strategic political sense. Because large swaths of Americans at all income levels consider themselves middle-class, entitlements that benefit the middle-class like Social Security are politically difficult to cut. Meanwhile slashing benefits that go to the poor, (as Bill Clinton should know after gutting the old welfare system) is much easier for the public to accept.
Knowing that the right-wing will always regain political power at some point and want to start slashing social programs, progressives should push for universal programs that also benefit the middle-class rather than means-tested programs that only low-income people qualify for.
For example, this would mean arguing for lowering college tuition for all students rather than expanding financial aid. (It also suggests single-payer healthcare would be much harder to get rid of by future conservatives than the subsidies provided by Obamacare.)
But wait– isn’t the whole point of social programs to redistribute wealth to those most in need? Why add a large extra cost to help people who aren’t poor?
First, there’s the strategic/political reason. If we really believe things like healthcare or education or retirement security are human rights, then when we score major victories to expand access to them, we have to make our victories last. The best way to prevent future cuts is to create universal programs that people actually see as one of their basic rights as Americans, like Social Security.
There’s also an economic/policy reason. Low-income families are essentially punished when they manage to struggle their way into the middle-class because they lose government benefits they no longer qualify for. This is the precarious reality of being lower-middle-class in America, where your family faces extra burdens just as you are barely beginning to achieve the American dream. If you instead make things like college education or healthcare guaranteed at all income levels, the government is no longer essentially penalizing people for making it into the middle-class.
One potential problem is that making a program universal necessarily makes it more expensive and thus creates political challenges to passing it in the first place. However, most middle-class families already pay for things like college and health insurance, so are likely to accept paying taxes to get them for free from the government, in the same way that most people don’t mind payroll taxes to fund their Social Security benefits, because they would have had to save for retirement anyway.
On the other hand, many middle-class people might prefer privately financing education or healthcare rather than publicly financing it because of their negative views towards government. But those negative views towards government have mostly been created in the last few decades by right-wing messaging that stirred up middle-class resentment towards low-income people for being dependent on government aid (“welfare queens”, etc.) The only way to counter it is by showing middle-class voters that the universal provision of economic rights like education and healthcare is not just about helping the poor, but about stopping the rise of economic insecurity being experienced by all Americans.