Nicholas Kristof is Wrong About Poverty; Education Isn’t a Turnkey Solution

Hey, you! The college graduate working two restaurant jobs to make rent and pay off six figures of student loan debt—yes, you! Award-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof has an idea for how you can improve your economic circumstances: Get an education!

Oh, wait.

In The New York Times last week, Kristof suggested that in his second term, President Obama should “undertake nation-building at home—starting with children so that they will no longer be limited by their ZIP codes.” The globetrotter and poverty warrior made a similar appeal in a column last month, arguing that tax dollars should be shifted away from public benefits programs like Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and toward support for education and early childhood.

Kristof joins the likes of educator Geoffrey Canada, former Washington, DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, and even R&B star John Legend in arguing that to end poverty, we must first improve American education. 

Kristof is right to highlight the inequities in our educational system, and he's right to advocate for leveling the playing field. But macroeconomically speaking, fighting poverty with education doesn't make any sense. Kristof fails to make a key distinction: education is a great asset for an individual trying to escape poverty, but it falls short of fixing systemic inequality.

"People are better off if they have a college degree," said Heidi Shierholz, labor market economist at the Economic Policy Institute. "On average, people with a college degree have higher wages, higher lifetime earnings, and they're less likely to face periods of employment instability."

The problem is that education has little influence over the structure of the economy in aggregate. "If we get everyone a college degree, it’s not going to all of a sudden create more college labor market jobs—employers will demand what they demand," Shierholz told Campus Progress. "A huge portion of jobs, even ten years from now, won’t require any training beyond short term, on the job training."

Indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2020, 26.3 percent of American jobs will require a college degree, compared with 25.5 percent in 2010. A prime example of the economy's inability to fully absorb educated workers: Today, 53 percent of recent college graduates are jobless or underemployed.

In a market economy, there will always be winners and losers. Someone has to be the janitor, the waiter, the Wal-mart stocker.

So if education isn't the answer, then how do we end poverty? Shierholz argued that we should focus on increasing the bargaining power of low-wage workers through unionization, increasing the minimum wage, expanding eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit, decreasing unemployment with fiscal stimulus, and then maintaining full employment through Federal Reserve oversight.

"Real progress can be made if we increase job opportunities and get good wages to people even at the very low end," Shierholz said.

Kristof envisions an America in which we all have an equal shot at being a winner, with no one "limited by their ZIP code." It's an important ideal, but if we want to eliminate poverty, our focus should be on the losers.

As long as we pay our retail workers poverty wages, there will be poverty. As long as SSI—which Kristof advocates cutting—doesn't lift disabled Americans above the poverty line, there will be poverty. And as long as 8 percent of Americans can't find work, there will be poverty.

Everyone deserves access to a quality education. But everyone also deserves to have their basic needs met, regardless of their level of educational attainment.

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