Can education end poverty?

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The Midwest has taken a beating lately. Think national poverty rates are high? Midwestern rates are eight  times higher, says a Heartland Alliance analysis.

Illinois isn't an exception. In 2009, while the national unemployment rate hovered around 9.3 percent, ours hit 10.1. Over the last decade, unemployment rates in Illinois grew 129 percent.

It's probably no surprise that the people who have the toughest time getting a job are those with the least amount of education. Heartland says nearly 2 million workers in Illinois (1,957,066 to be exact) need a "basic skill upgrade" - more education to help them gain the skills to get a job. They're advocating for more job training programs, more money focused on the lowest low-income job-seekers, changes to welfare rules that would make it easier for recipients to get an education, and programs that help immigrants and those with low educational levels overcome barriers like language and illiteracy.

But is it enough? Lately, I'm not so sure.

I've been reading Slate magazine's The Great Divergence 2010.  Never heard of the Great Divergence? It's the economic quantification of this old saying: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

The Great Divergence follows what economists call the Great Compression, says Slate writer Timothy Noah. That was the time between 1941 and 1979 when income inequality - how much the very richest have versus the very poorest - was getting better. People were more equal. It may be why there's such great nostalgia for the 50s. "Assuming you were white, not of draft age, and Christian, there probably
was no better time to belong to America's middle class," writes Noah.

But since 1979, we've gone the other way. Incomes have been getting more unequal, and wildly so. Take a look:

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The graph comes from sociology professor Lane Kenworthy from the University of Arizona. The bottom line? It's a good time to be rich in America. It's a lousy time to be middle or working class.

This isn't something that's happened overnight. As the line on the graph shows, the Great Divergence has been getting greater over time. But why? After nearly 40 years of things getting better, how did we end up so wildly unequal?

I'll give you the answer, but you should really read Timothy Noah's entire piece (pdf). It's 40 pages, but every page is worth it. But to sum it up, Noah says we can blame it on a few different things:

-- Immigration: 5 percent. 
-- Tax policy: 5 percent.
-- The decline of organized labor: 20 percent.
-- Trade: 10 percent.
-- Wall Street and corporate boards' pampering the rich: 30 percent.
-- Various failures in our education system: 30 percent

So, education problems do account for a lot of the troubles of the working and middle class. But here's the rub: low-wage work is growing. Who needs an education when an education can't get you a better job? The sectors of the economy that are on the rise, the places that are hiring, are hiring people for wages where many workers still qualify, and need, food stamps.

So if we're going to reverse the Great Divergence, we're going to have to help people get the education they need to get these high skill jobs. But we're still going to have a huge sector of the economy for whom more education won't make a difference. If we want to change income inequality (and there are some people who don't), we have to look at all the reasons why low-income families are falling behind.  

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