An article recently came out from the Brookings Institution, The new economics of jobs is bad news for working-class Americans – and maybe for Trump. In the first paragraph, the article points out two startling facts:
- “Americans with college degrees can account for all of the net new jobs created over the last decade.”
- “[The number of] Americans with high school degrees or less who are employed, in this ninth year of economic expansion, has fallen by 2,995,000.”
Using household employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they put together this useful, jaw-dropping, table of employment statistics.
If you look in the first red square, you will see that people with a high school diploma or less lost nearly 4.5 million jobs during the recession, whereas people with a college degree gained over 4.3 million jobs.
During the recovery, people with a high school diploma only gained back 1.4 million jobs. Those with a college degree gained an additional 7.5 million jobs on top of the 4.3 million gained during the recession.
For those without a college degree (there are about 38 million of you, and more every day), there are actually 3 million fewer jobs available to you today than in 2008. For those with a college degree, there are about 12 million more jobs for you today than ten years ago.
So what does this mean for those young people entering the workforce without a college degree today? Unfortunately, they are Generation Screwed.
Graduation Rates and Advancement to College in Holyoke and Springfield
The chart from Brookings shook me to the bones. I volunteer at an after-school program in Holyoke, working largely with kids from low-income households and who attend Holyoke Public Schools (which are so underperforming that the state took them over). A lot of these kids are smart, motivated, and energetic – but it’s impossible not to see the huge structural obstacles they face to graduating and attending college.
For example, I can think of two teenagers I’ve worked with who have shown a shockingly low level of literacy, struggling to spell basic words. If you make it to the 9th grade but can’t spell the word “bike,” then can you image trying to write college essays in just two or three years?
It is impossible to overstate how heartbreaking it is to see these talented young people struggling against such a fierce headwind. School only gets harder as you get older – low literacy turns from something you can bluff your way through into a crippling liability. Inability to do basic math (like order of operations) keeps you from ever advancing to Algebra II, let alone into the STEM fields we so desperately need more students in.
And if, through some miracle, these young people make it to a 2- or 4-year institution after graduation, the academic and social support needed to navigate this even more intense academic setting is daunting. Academics expect you to be able to write a coherent essay, to be able to type and email and print out assignments, to be able to present yourself appropriately (e.g. wear a tie) when you’re supposed to (and they expect you to know when you’re supposed to wear a tie).
To put an exclamation mark after the obstacles these kids face, let’s look at some maps:
Above is a map of school districts. Some school district data is missing, but you can clearly see a pattern here – Holyoke and Springfield have graduation rates under 80%. Holyoke’s graduation rate is an embarrassing 62%, while Springfield’s isn’t much better at 69%.
Of those who graduate from high school, let’s take a look at how many go on to a 2- or 4-year college program.
Holyoke and Springfield are no longer at the bottom of the list; about 65% of high school graduates from both school districts attend college. But when taken as a whole, only two-thirds of high schoolers graduate, and only two-thirds of them go to college – that is less than 45% of high school students in Springfield and Holyoke who will successfully make it through high school to attend college.
The other 55% of kids in Holyoke and Springfield? They are the ones entering the cohort of Americans struggling to deal with 3 million lost jobs since 2008. They are Generation Screwed.
The Other Side of the Coin – Longmeadow and Amherst
In contrast, two of the wealthiest school districts in the valley are Longmeadow and Amherst (Amherst shares its school district with Pelham).
- In Longmeadow, which has a median household income of over $110,000 per year, 97% of all high school students graduate. Of those, 92% go on to college.
- In Amherst, which has a median family income of over $92,000 per year, 89% of high schoolers graduate. Of those, 83% go on to college.
About 90% of kids in Longmeadow and 75% of kids in Amherst are entering the cross-section of Americans where employment is booming (college educated), while only 45% of kids only a few miles away in Springfield and Holyoke are doing the same.
This is not to say that everyone in these two communities has an idyllic, perfect life. And it’s not to say that students in these schools don’t work hard to graduate and go to college. But it does demonstrate the last point that I want to make – today, your ZIP code predicts a lot about your economic success in life.
The Geography of Escaping Poverty
I just read an article on CityLab about the different things we as a society should do to help people escape poverty. In that article, they published this map from the Urban Institute showing rates of upward mobility. While economic mobility is bad in this country, it’s really bad in some regions.
If you look closely, the Pioneer Valley can be seen in western Mass as a bright orange blob, indicating the worst upward economic mobility in the state.
So what can we do?
Well, the CityLab article highlights these things:
- Get families with young kids out of impoverished neighborhoods
- Humanize poverty
- Give the poor better information on available resources
There’s a lot more good insight on this issue which I don’t have room to go into here, but I highly recommend checking out the article.
Political and Social Consequences
In the end, it’s clear that the American economy has left behind whole swaths of our fellow Americans. Education is a key factor, but wrapped up in all of that is class and race. Inequality and poverty are pressing problems, and ones that are only going to grow until we get serious about addressing them.
Until then, as the Brookings article suggests, we should continue to expect political turmoil and growing resentment and social divisions. People vowing to tear down the status quo – a status quo which is terribly broken for so many Americans – will gain ever more traction.
And this isn’t something happening in far-off corners of the country like Appalachia or Detroit – you can find it right here in the Pioneer Valley. And so we can and must begin to fix it, right here, in the Pioneer Valley.