Education Cannot Solve Poverty and Inequality

One of the long-standing stubborn myths about education in American culture is that education is “the great equalizer” and that education is the way to overcome poverty and inequality at the individual and societal levels.

The facts show, however, that poverty and inequality are generally increasing every year despite the fact that there are more college-educated people than ever. Indeed, many people with college degrees are unemployed or underemployed. And many are stuck in jobs that have little to do with their degrees. Never mind the massive debt load oppressing many students, college graduates, and their families. In 2020, millions of college educated people are starting out life at a great disadvantage.

In the realm of K-12 education, when mass state-organized education started in the mid-1800s, only a small number of youth attended school. Today, 50 million young people are enrolled in 100,000 public schools across the country. More youth than ever are schooled. But this has not stopped poverty or inequality; both keep growing despite many “reforms.”

Poverty, unemployment, inequality, and insecurity are rooted in the outmoded capitalist economic system. This outdated system, with or without education, guarantees poverty, unemployment, inequality, and insecurity. Such problems are not some aberration or accident of the system, they necessarily arise from the internal logic and operation of capital. Capitalism ensures that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer, which is why the capitalist economic system simply cannot provide for the needs of all.

Even if everyone had three college degrees, there would not be enough jobs, let alone good jobs, to employ everyone. This is one reason why the “gig economy” has exploded in recent years. Underemployment is the new unemployment. It is also worth noting that in January 2000, 20 years ago, the employment-to-population ratio exceeded 64%, while today it stands below 61%.1 This means fewer people are participating in the workforce now than 20 years ago. Pensions have also been negatively affected over the years. In 1979, more than 40 years ago, nearly 51% of workers, which is a low number to begin with, received some type of pension through their employer. By 2016, only 32.4% of workers received such pension benefits.2

Americans are suffering more with each passing year because of an economy that cannot meet the needs of all. And the COVID Pandemic has severely deepened the economic crisis confronting everyone. Work, moreover, has never been considered a basic human right in capitalist economies. Like most needs, work is reduced to a privilege or an opportunity in “free market” societies.

While education is indispensable and valuable, it cannot overcome the main contradiction in the economic system between social production and private ownership. Under capitalism, those who produce the wealth and those who control the wealth are not the same. The majority produces the wealth in society, while a tiny ruling elite controls all socially-produced wealth. Consequently, the majority cannot decide how, where, and when to use the wealth they produce. All major decisions about the economy are made by the top one percent of the top one percent.

Graduating more students from high school and college is a good thing, but it won’t solve poverty and inequality. Having more high school and college graduates does not change the economic system that generates these and other problems.

The motive of production today serves mainly the rich, not the people as a whole. Ending serious socio-economic problems requires democratic renewal and a big change in the motivation, direction, and outlook of society and the economy.

What is needed is a human-centered economy that is balanced, coordinated, and consciously organized to ensure the well-being of all. The healthy extended reproduction of society is not possible in an economy dominated by private competing owners of capital driven by unlimited greed. Only an economy with conscious human control and a society that recognizes the rights of all can overcome poverty, unemployment, and other tragedies. In such a society, the mental and manual abilities of all will be better and further developed. No one will experience insecurity, fear, and anxiety because human rights will serve as the core principle guiding all activities. Stubborn problems like poverty, unemployment, and inequality will be overcome because the human factor and social consciousness will be deployed to swiftly end such decades-long problems. Such problems will no longer be treated as “too big to solve.”

  1. Economic Policy Institute, March 2020. []
  2. Economic Policy Institute, February 2017. []
Shawgi Tell is author of the book Charter School Report Card. He can be reached at stell5@naz.edu.. Read other articles by Shawgi.