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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

America’s Great Problems


The verdict is in. I haven’t done any scientific analysis, but I’m confident of what I am about to assert – the American attention span is shorter than the time it takes for Auburn to score a touchdown after a missed Alabama field goal.

In other words – short. Very short.

For a few moments earlier this fall we were consumed by the news of a humanitarian crisis and chemical weapons use in Syria. Then the Obamacare website didn’t work. Then Iran seemed to be coming to the international table to negotiate over its nuclear weapons program and then China started issuing orders about disputed airspace in the Far East. Oh, yes, throw in a train wreck, a few tornadoes and an NFL lineman who is a bully. So much news and so much noise that much of the media and most policy makers seem to consistently miss the truly great issues confronting the nation.

Most of us continue to look – silly us – to our political leaders to help us understand what is really important, but people in elected office, even the smartest, most dedicated seem more victims than masters of the nation’s collective attention deficit disorder. We certainly don’t lack for controversy and crisis. We do lack a leadership that helps define a sense of national priorities. What might we agree on as a nation that would really make a difference?

Syria, Iran, China and inadequate health insurance websites are all legitimate problems to be sure, but they are truly dwarfed by two more fundamental issues that, at the risk of hyperbole, really threaten the nation’s long-term viability. For the most part political leadership is missing in action. The issues are growing income inequality and the profound challenges confronting the nation’s education system at every level. As if to render the issues even more complicated, we need to recognize that income inequality and educational attainment are actually two sides of the same coin.

A few statistics to put the great problems in sharper focus:

State-level funding for education at all levels, and particularly higher education, has been tumbling since the 1980’s and at the same time – if you’re putting kids through college you know this – tuition rates have spiked. In Idaho, in-state tuition is up by about 45 percent in less than a decade. There have been comparable increases in Oregon and Washington. Arizona led the nation with a 70 percent increase in the last five years, while the national average increase has been 27 percent. Little wonder there is a mounting crisis – $1.2 trillion worth – of college loan debt.

The American Council on Education, a respected advocacy group of college and university presidents, said in a recent report appropriately entitled A Race to the Bottom, “The 2011 funding effort [for higher education] was down by 40.2 percent compared with fiscal 1980. Extrapolating that trend, the national average state investment in higher education will reach zero in fiscal 2059. In other words, states are already 40 percent of the way to zero. At this rate of decline, it will take another 48 years to finish off the remaining state support for higher education.”

Another data point: The country’s standing in terms of the number of young people completing post-secondary education is in decline compared to much of the rest of the developing world. As the Washington Post reported in September, “Instead of gaining ground, the United States has fallen from 12th to 16th in the share of adults age 25 to 34 holding degrees, according to the report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It trails global leaders South Korea, Canada and Japan and is mired in the middle of the pack among developed nations.”

The attainment rate for college graduates in the United States has actually crept up to 41 percent, but as the Post noted, “in South Korea, which has become the world leader, the rate has reached 63 percent. Canada and Japan rank second and third, respectively, with attainments of about 56 percent.”

In terms of college attainment the United States now trails Russia, Ireland, Norway, New Zealand, Australia, Denmark, Israel and Belgium — as well as Luxembourg, the United Kingdom, France and Sweden, all of whom passed the U.S. in the latest rankings.

No doubt you’ve heard that a college degree, more costly than ever, just isn’t worth all that much in terms of economic value. It’s just not true.

Eduardo Porter, a very well educated fellow, writes the Economic Scene column for the New York Times and recently wrote this: “On a pure dollars-and-cents basis, the doubters are wrong. Despite a weak job market for recent graduates, workers with a bachelor’s degree still earn almost twice as much as high school graduates. College might be more expensive than ever, but a degree is worth about $365,000 over a lifetime, after defraying all the direct and indirect costs of going to school. This is a higher payoff than in any other advanced nation, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.”

Now let’s try to connect the dots of educational attainment and income inequality.

In September – you remember September, we were focused on shutting down the government, I think – the Census Bureau reported that 15 percent of Americans now live in poverty and a typical American family is making less on an annual basis in 2013 than it was in 1989. From about 1993 until about 2000, median household income was increasing steadily, but that upward trend ended and has, with the exception of brief uptick in 2007, been headed down…and down.

It is not terribly surprising that educational attainment is generally the worst in communities with the worst economic conditions. One example from Las Vegas where, as the Review-Journal reported recently, “With rare exception, school ratings are higher district wide when the surrounding neighborhood has a higher median household income and more college-educated residents, regardless of whether parents have degrees.

“Schools do progressively worse when their neighborhoods have higher rates of high school-only educated residents, families falling below the poverty line, and minorities.” In other words, education equals better economic conditions.

To summarize: state-level support for education at all levels (but higher education particularly) has been plummeting, more Americans than ever are acquiring education beyond high school (in part because the recession sent many folks who were out of work back to school), but most of the rest of the developed world – our economic competitors – are getting more advanced education then we are, and more education is still the surest path to a better economic life, particularly when real family income in the United States is as flat as a pancake.

The progressive “think tank” Think Progress says this about the growing economic divide in America. “Income inequality has been growing since the 1970s, as the richest 20 percent of Americans saw their income grow much faster than the bottom 20 percent. But things have accelerated in the economic downturn. For the past three years, those at the top of the income ladder saw their incomes grow by 5 percent while everyone else’s income dropped. The top 10 percent of the country’s earners took home half of the income in 2012, the largest amount on record.

“And things at the bottom have been declining. The bottom 60 percent of earners have experienced a ‘lost decade’ of wage growth, seeing their compensation fall or stagnate. Many forces have contributed to this trend, but the growth of low-wage jobs that replace middle class work during the recovery has helped it along.”

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that more education for more Americans – college degrees, technical skills training, even an English degree – is the one sure path to a better standard of living and, I would argue, a stronger, more diverse economy. It is past time that our budget and policy priorities got in sync with this reality.

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