Education and Economic Justice

Colin Doyle
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 07/15/2012

Unitarian Universalism is a faith that looks inward and outward. We look inward to the spirit and we seek to develop our spirituality and our religious identity. We look outward to the world beyond our sanctuaries and we work to increase social justice in our world. UU sermons often reflect this dual identity. There are the spiritual sermons, the traditionally religious ones. And then there are the worldly sermons, focused on issues of the day in the wider society. This sermon will be of the latter kind, but our approach to the world is always informed by our spiritual identity and by focusing on the plight of others we are putting into action that we have learned from our spiritual reflection.

Personally, I bring to church not only my evolving spiritual identity, but also my identity as an economist. Economists have something of a bad reputation. We are known as practitioners of a “dismal science.” Our ideas about the allocative efficiency of markets are often deployed by those who oppose policies designed to promote social justice. I believe that the insights provided by economics can be a guide for social justice work. Indeed, just as environmental justice must take account of climatology and biology, social justice must take account of the insights that economics can provide.

It was in the halls of academic economics that a trend was first noticed that has now come to prominence in our national conversation and that presents one of the most pernicious challenges to social justice in our nation today: The growing economic inequality in our society.

Economists are good at collecting data, and the data on inequality are striking and frankly appalling. Michael greenstone and Adam Looney of the Brookings Institution summarize the situation well:

"For most of the past century, a good job was a ticket to the middle class. Hitched to the locomotive of rapid economic growth, the wages of the typical worker seemed to go in only one direction: up. From 1950 to 1970, the average earnings of male workers increased by about 25 percent each decade. And these gains were not concentrated among some lucky few. Rather, earnings rose for most workers, and almost every prime-aged male (ages 25-64) worked.

Technological advancement and everbroadening global markets brought opportunities that increasingly educated American workers raced to embrace. This resulted in steadily rising living standards, generations of children who outearned their parents, and a thriving middle class.

But in the mid-1970s, that pattern abruptly changed. Technological change and globalization continued to power both economic growth and the total earnings of the work force. Women, who were entering the market at increasing rates, enjoyed the fruits of that prosperity in rising wages. But the fortunes of a large segment of workers – male workers lacking specialized skills – was unhitched from the engine of growth.

Over the past 40 years, a period in which U.S. GDP per capita more than doubled after adjusting for inflation, the annual earnings of the median prime-aged male has actually fallen by 28 percent. Indeed, males at the middle of the wage distribution now earn about the same as their counterparts in the 1950s! This decline reflects both stagnant wages for men on the job, and the fact that, compared with 1969, three times as many men of working age don’t work at all."

Much has been made recently of the divide between the 1% and the 99%, and it is no doubt true that the concentration of wealth among a few is a challenge for our nation. But the really big story of our time is the divide between the 50% and the 50%. Research by Lawrence Katz and Claudia Goldin of Harvard shows that since 1988 the earnings of the upper half of earners have steadily grown, while the earnings of the lower half have steadily fallen. In their words, America has been growing apart.

Goldin and Katz describe the history of wages in America as a race between education and technology. During the first half of the 20th century, we moved from an economy focused on agriculture to one driven by manufacturing. The complexity of manufacturing technology meant that jobs in the new industries required a greater level of skill than uneducated farmers had possessed. American workers responded by acquiring more skill. Between 1910 and 1950, the years of schooling of the typical new worker rose from nine to thirteen. A high school education became the norm and college graduation rates soared.

In the 1970s computers entered the workplace for the first time, and their spread has raised the importance of education even more. Here is how Katz and Goldin put it (and please bear with me as it is a little techie!):

"Changes in the organization of work associated with computerization raise the demand for the cognitive and interpersonal skills used by educated professionals and managers and reduce the demand for the clerical and routine analytical and mechanical skills that characterize many middle-educated white-collar positions and manufacturing production jobs."

The returns to a college education rose, while the value of a high-school education fell. This time, workers, particularly men, did not respond with greater educational attainment. High school graduation rates remained flat. Although college graduation rates have continued to climb for women (due partly to civil rights gains), male college graduation rates are stuck where they were in the 1970s.

In their treatise Race Against the Machine, MIT's Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee make a strong case that the ever-increasing capabilities of computers will continue to drive down the value of many forms of skill. Clearly, a great many Americans are losing the race between technology and education.

If education is the key to our economic divisions, we need to ask why our education system produces such unequal outcomes. The Urban Education Lab at the University of Chicago is dedicated to answering this question, and they have described the situation well:

"One of the best ways to avoid being poor as an adult is to obtain a good education. Yet in modern America poor children face an elevated risk for a variety of adverse educational outcomes. Understanding why children’s outcomes vary so dramatically along social class lines is central to formulating effective education policy interventions that can address this seemingly endless cycle of poverty. Unfortunately there has been much disagreement over how to improve schooling outcomes for poor children, stemming in part from different beliefs about the problems that underlie the unsatisfactory outcomes in many of our nation’s public schools.

Broadly speaking, critics tend to invoke … one of the following reasons when explaining why so many children in high-poverty schools are not performing as well as their more advantaged counterparts:

1. Schools serving poor and minority students have fewer resources than they need. In this case, a potential solution would be to provide more money to disadvantaged schools.
2. High-poverty schools lack the capacity to substantially improve student learning, independent of financial resources. Potential solutions involve helping schools implement specific new … practices, … professional development or more selective hiring.
3. High-poverty schools do not have sufficient incentives and/or flexibility to improve instruction. Without clarifying the main objectives of schools and holding key actors accountable, proponents of this perspective believe additional spending will simply be squandered. Accordingly, the solution is to enhance incentives …
4. Schools matter only so much, and the real problem rests with the social context in which schools operate. Adopting accountability or market-oriented reforms without changing social policy more broadly will simply punish educators for factors beyond their control, and potentially drive the most able teachers toward schools serving less disadvantaged students.

…[C]urrent education policy debates often seem to be argued as if the problems listed above are mutually exclusive. But the available research provides some empirical evidence … that each of these hypothesized problems are, in fact, [real] problems. What remains poorly understood is what the most cost-effective strategy for improving schooling outcomes for disadvantaged children would look like."

Like all good academics in the social sciences, the team from the University of Chicago tells us that the problem they have been assigned is a complex and challenging one admitting no easy answers!

What does all of this mean for UUs? The growing chasm between the upper and lower income halves of our population is a real challenge for the cause of social justice. America is in danger of becoming what it has always endeavored not to be: a class society. Just as UUs must stand against the pollution of our climate, the denial of rights to LGBTQ people and the oppression of immigrants, so too we must stand against the forces of economic division. I believe that this is the fourth great challenge of our time. Clearly the issue is a complex one. What can we do to stand on the side of love?

First, we can make it clear to our elected representatives that education is a key issue for us. We are entering a period in which there is great pressure to cut budgets. It may not be clear-cut that increasing school resources will improve outcomes without other changes, but cutting those resources surely cannot help. We must demand that federal, state and local budgets are not balanced on the backs of our schools.

Second, we can take action in our own lives to help those in our community whose needs for learning are greatest. There are many opportunities for us to volunteer our time to help a child learn. On a personal note, my wife Esther volunteered four years ago with the Ruth Rales Reading Program, which matches teen and adult volunteers with second-graders who are making the critical transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Esther was so impacted by her experience that she has changed careers and become a teacher.

Sugarloaf is a small congregation, and one that is still finding its identity. The social justice mission of our church is not yet clear. My hope is that we, and the wider Unitarian Universalist church, will recognize the pressing need to heal the economic divisions that surround us, and the key role that education must play in that cause.

So may it be.


Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney, "Trends: Men in Trouble." Milken Institute Review, July 27, 2011.

Goldin, C, Katz LF. 2007. "Long-Run Changes in the U.S. Wage Stucture: Narrowing, Widening, Polarizing." Brookings Papers on Economic Activity.

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, "Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy." Digital Frontier Press (October 17, 2011)

Urban Education Lab, "Key Findings."