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No Child Left Behind as an Anti-Poverty Measure

Posted: 2007-02-18

This article appears in Teacher Education Quarterly, Spring 2007.

Here is the dirty little secret: for better scores on achievement tests and increased education to secure better jobs for low-income folks, there have to be better jobs available.

This article is must reading. It takes the NCLB argument where it should have been all along.


Listen, the No Child Left Behind Act is really a jobs act when you think about it.
â??President George W. Bush, Oct. 13, 2004, Third Presidential Debate


This article argues that, although No Child Left Behind is not presented as a jobs policy (Bush's slip during a Presidential Debate being the only place it is given such a moniker), the Act does function as a substitute for the creation of decently paying jobs for those who need them. Aimed particularly at the minority poor like its 1965 predecessor, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, NCLB acts as an anti-poverty program because it is based on an implicit assumption that increased educational achievement is the route out of poverty for low-income families and individuals. NCLB stands in the place of policies like job creation and significant raises in the minimum wage which â?? although considerably more expensive than standardized testing--would significantly decrease poverty in the United States.

We demonstrate that there are significant economic realities, and existing public policies, that severely curtail the power of education to function as a route out of poverty for poor people. The weakened role of education in upward mobility, of course, vitiates any premise that better scores on achievement tests, and increased education, will secure for low-income folks the jobs and income they need. Let us make our case.

Education and the Economy
For more education to lead to better jobs, there have to be jobs available. However, there are not now, nor have there been for more than two decades, nearly enough jobs for those who need them. Labor economist Gordon Lafer demonstrated that over the period 1984 to 1996 â?? at the height of an alleged labor shortage â?? the number of people in need of work exceeded the total number of job openings by an average of five to one. In 1996, for example, the country would have needed 14.4 million jobs in order for all low-income people to work their way out of poverty. However, there were at most 2.4 million job openings available to meet this need; of these, only one million were in full-time, non-managerial positions (2002).

Furthermore, the jobs the U.S. economy now produces are primarily povertywage
jobs â?? and only a relative few highly paid ones â?? making it increasingly less
certain that education will assure that work pays well (Anyon, 2005). Seventy-seven
percent of new and projected jobs in the next decade will be low-paying. Only a
quarter of these are expected to pay over $26,000 a year (in 2002 dollars). A mere
12.6% will require a college degree, while most will require on-the-job training
only. Of the 20 occupations expected to grow the fastest, only six require college
degrees�these are in computer systems and computer information technology
fields, and there are relatively few of these jobs overall (Department of Labor, 2002).

Gender discrimination can work to reverse â?? or even eliminate â?? wage gains
that accrue to individuals with more education. Female high school graduates earn
less than male high school dropouts. And women with post-bachelor�s degrees earn
less than men who have just a bachelor�s (Lafer, 2002; Mishel, Bernstein, &
Boushey, 2003; Wolff, 2003). If you are female, more education does not necessarily
mean higher wages.

Race as well can cut into the benefits of further education. A study of entry-level
workers in California, for example, discovered that Black and Latino youth had
improved significantly on every measure of skill in absolute terms and relative to
White workers. Yet their wages were falling further behind those of Whites. In this
example, the deleterious effects of racism outweighed the benefits of education,
with minority workers at every level of education losing ground to similarlyprepared
Whites (Lafer, 2002).

Various other economic realities â?? such as lack of unionization, multiple free
trade agreements which outsource jobs, and increasing use of part-time workers â??
cut across the college-wage benefit, lowering it significantly for large numbers of
people, most of whom are minorities and women.

Even a college degree no longer guarantees a decent job. One of six college
graduates is in a job paying less than the average salary of high school graduates
(Anyon, 2005). Between 8.8% and 11% of people with a bachelor's degree make
around the minimum wage. This means that an increasing number of college
graduates &emdash; about one in ten &emdash; is employed at poverty wages (ibid.). Even the
education levels of welfare recipients are high. The share of welfare recipients who
have high school degrees has increased from 42% in 1979 to more than two-thirds
(70%) in 1999 (U.S. General Accounting Office, 2001).

These realities suggest that the promise of good jobs and better pay underlying
NCLB is a false one for many people â?? especially low-income minority students and
women â?? because for them educational achievement brings no guarantee of economic success.

Consider, finally, that the vast majority of low-income students who do
attend college do not have the funds or other supports to complete their bachelor's
degree. The majority of low-income students who attend college are forced to
withdraw, and only 7 percent of very low-income people attain a bachelor's by
age 26 (Ed. Trust, 2004b).

In addition to these economic realities, there are federal policies that contradict
the implicit premise of NCLB that higher educational achievement leads to good
jobs. Minimum wage policy and job training policy are two examples.

Minimum Wage Policy
The minimum wage in 2006 was $5.15, which produces a yearly income of
$10,712. This sum means that full-time, year-round, minimum-wage work will not
raise people out of poverty (Mishel, Bernstein, & Boushey, 2003). An analysis in
2004 found that minimum-wage standards directly affect the wages of 9% of the
workforce (9.9 million workers). When we include those making just one dollar
more an hour than the minimum wage ($6.15 an hour or $12,792 annually), this
legislation affects the wages of as much as 18% of the workforce (17.8 million
workers)(Economic Policy Institute July, 2004).

In fact, an almost universally ignored reality is that nearly half of the workforce
earns what some economists call "poverty-zone wages" (and what Anyon defines
as up to and including 125 percent of the official poverty level) (Anyon, 2005).
Anyon's analysis demonstrated that in 1999, during a very strong economy, almost
half of all people at work in the U.S. (41.3%) earned poverty-zone wages�$10.24/
hour ($21,299/year) or less, working full-time, year-round (Mishel, Bernstein &
Schmitt, 2001, Table 2.10, p. 130). Two years later, in 2001, 38.4% earned povertyzone
wages working full-time, year-round (in 2001, 125% of the poverty threshold
was a $10.88 hourly wage) (Mishel, Bernstein, & Boushey, 2003). This suggests that
the federal minimum-wage policy is an important determinant of poverty for many
millions of U.S. families.

Thus, it seems to us that realistic anti-poverty policies would include significant raises in the minimum wage. Indeed, during the decades following World War
II, when working-class Americans prospered, the minimum wage was indexed to the
wages of well-paid, unionized, industrial workers: when their wages increased, so
did the wages of the un-unionized (Galbraith, 1998).

We would note that education did not create the problem of wide-spread
poverty wages, and education will not solve the problem. No Child Left Behind will
not raise wages for the millions who work at poverty jobs. Only employers and
governments can raise wages.

Job Training Policy
A second policy that weakens the assumption that increased education is a
route to economic advancement for the poor is federal job training legislation.

In 1982 President Ronald Reagan cut the Comprehensive Employment and
Training Administration (CETA) program, which had created more than two million
full-time jobs for the unemployed. Since the early 1980s, the federal government
has depended on job training instead of job creation as the main method by which
people are to move from poverty and unemployment to solvency. (Although the
federal government does fund job creation for high-tech, high end positions.)

Analyses have consistently demonstrated that job-training programs cannot
succeed for more than a few low-income trainees because there are not enough jobs
to be had. Moreover, the jobs these programs prepare people for are almost always
low-wage employment (such as janitorial work, or truck-driving) (Lafer, 2002;
Pigeon & Wray, 1999).

Realistic anti-poverty policy would have to include job creation across the
board. Job creation for the unemployed was in fact a long-term federal policy begun
in the 1930s during the Great Depression â?? until it was eliminated by Reagan. If we
expect students who achieve at high levels to obtain better jobs, we need to begin
creating those jobs.

The Social Costs of NCLB
NCLB is often criticized for the ways in which it attempts to privatize a publicly
controlled function by moving to a capitalistic market model in which educational
service creates profits for private business.

Schools that fail to raise test scores, for example, give way ultimately to
vouchers in the market model, but first to a variety of expensive, pre-packaged
curricula, testing, and tutoring programs. As a result, companies have already
accrued billions of dollars of profit (Bracey, 2005). Among the largest beneficiaries
of these newly expanded markets are long-term business friends of President George
Bush â?? e.g., the McGraw family of test-makers CBT-McGraw Hill, powerful lobbyist
Sandy Kress, and the developers and publishers of Reading First, a billion-dollara-
year, federally funded primary reading program for which districts must compete (ibid.). The privatization built into NCLB accelerates the 20th century trend toward
shaping public education in the interests of corporate concerns. Our concluding
argument builds on this point.

We have alleged that NCLB is a federal legislative substitute for policies that
would actually lower poverty â?? legislation that would create jobs with decent
wages for those who do not have them. Our critique has been that an assumption
underlying NCLB, that increased educational achievement will ultimately reduce
poverty, does not prove valid for large segments of the population. We want to make
a further point here.

If businesses were mandated by law to create jobs for those who need them â??
and if business had to pay decent wages and benefits â?? the costs to business owners
would be enormous. As we know, neither small nor large corporations pay such costs
now. Instead, the costs of the poverty produced by insufficient and poorly paid
employment are passed on to the tax-paying public in the form of programs to
compensate: public tax dollars pay for welfare, food stamps, and Medicaid â?? among
other publicly-funded programs that attempt to ameliorate the individual and social
pain of unemployment and underemployment.

When the federal government and the business communities rely on education
to reduce poverty, the social costs of the failure of such an approach are enormous,
and taxpayers shoulder the burden.

Political economists have pointed out that in the last half century taxpayers
have paid for an increasing number of supports that make private business�
especially large corporate conglomerates�profitable. Economist James O'Connor
noted in 1973 that taxpayers increasingly paid for more infrastructure, research and
development, and education:


Capitalist production has become more interdependent â?? more dependent on science and technology, labor functions more specialized, and the division of labor more extensive. Consequently, the monopoly sector [energy conglomerates, concentrated banking and finance, giant information technology firms, and manufacturing] . . . requires increasing numbers of technical and administrative workers. It also requires increasing amounts of infrastructure (physical overhead capital) â?? transportation, communication, R&D, education, and other facilities. In short, the monopoly sector requires more and more social investment in relation to private capital.... The costs of social investment . . . are not borne by monopoly capital but rather are socialized and fall on the state [i.e., upon tax payers]. (O'Connor 1973, 24)


That is, public funds subsidize the research and development, technology, and education that the corporate community says it needs.

We want to extend O'Connor's argument to include the social costs of the
poverty produced when jobs are lacking and pay is low. When businesses and large
corporations pay poverty-range wages to 41% of the people at work in America, the
costs of supporting people's needs are socialized to the tax-paying public, just as
the technological and other costs of doing business have been. The private sector
is not liable for the social costs of the poverty its actions produce.

NCLB is part of this process of socializing the costs of poverty. When the Act
assumes â?? even implicitly â?? that poverty is a result of low scores on standardized
tests, rather than on the fact that there are not enough decently paying jobs, it lets
the business community off the hook. It saddles the poor with unrealistic expectations
and the rest of us with unwitting support of corporate irresponsibility.

References
Anyon, J. (2005). Radical possibilities: Public policy, urban education, and a new social
movement.
New York: Routledge.
Bracey, G. (2005). No Child Left Behind: Where does the money go? Policy Brief, Education
Policy Studies Laboratory, Education Policy Research Unit, Arizona State University.
Department of Labor (2002). Occupation projections to 2010. Washington, DC: Author.
Education Trust. (2004b). A matter of degrees: Improving graduation rates in four-year
colleges and universities.
Washington, DC: Author.
Galbraith, J. K. (1998). Created unequal: The crisis in American pay. Twentieth Century Fund Book. New York: The Free Press, Simon & Schuster.
Lafer, G. (2002). The job training charade. Ithaca, NY:Cornell University Press.
Mishel, L., Bernstein, J., & Boushey, H. (2003). The state of working America: 2002/2003.
Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Mishel, L., Bernstein, J., & Schmitt, J. (2001). The state of working America: 2000/2001. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
O�Connor, J. (1973). Fiscal crisis of the state. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Pigeon, M.-A., & Wray, R. (1999). Down and out in the U.S.: An inside look at the out of the
labor force population. Public Policy Brief No. 54. Annandale-on-Hudson, NY: The Jerome Levy Economics Institute of Bard College.
U.S. General Accounting Office. (2001, March). Welfare reform: Moving hard-to-employ recipients into the workforce. Report GAO-01-386. Washington, DC: U.S. General Accounting Office.
Wolff, E. (2003). Recent trends in living standards in the United States. Annandale-on-Hudson, NY: Bard College, Jerome Levy Economics Institute.

Jean Anyon is a
professor of educational
and social policy and
Kiersten Greene is a
doctoral student, both
with the Doctoral
Program in Urban
Education of the
Graduate Center of the
City University of New
York, New York, New York.

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