What College Can Mean to the Other America

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

September 11, 2011

It has been nearly 50 years since Michael Harrington wrote The Other America, pulling the curtain back on invisible poverty within the United States. If he were writing today, Harrington would find the same populations he described then: young, marginally educated people who drift in and out of low-pay, dead-end jobs, and older displaced workers, unable to find work as industries transform and shops close. But he would find more of them, especially the young, their situation worsened by further economic restructuring and globalization. And while the poor he wrote about were invisible in a time of abundance, ours are visible in a terrible recession, although invisible in most public policy. In fact, the poor are drifting further into the dark underbelly of American capitalism.

One of the Obama administration's mantras is that we need to "out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build" our competition in order to achieve fuller prosperity. The solution to our social and economic woes lies in new technologies, in the cutting edge. This is our "Sputnik moment," a very American way to frame our problems. However, the editors of The Economist wrote a few months back that this explanation of our economic situation is "mostly nonsense."

Instead, the business-friendly, neoliberal magazine offered a sobering—at times almost neo-Marxist—assessment of what it considers the real danger in our economy, something at the core of Harrington's analysis: chronic, ingrained joblessness that is related to our social and economic structure. We are looking toward the horizon of innovation when we should be looking straight in front of us at the tens of millions of chronically unemployed Americans and providing comprehensive occupational, educational, and social services. Otherwise, to cite an earlier issue of The Economist that also dealt with American inequality, we risk "calcifying into a European-style class-based society." For people without school or work, we already have.

There are a few current policy initiatives that are aimed at helping the disadvantaged gain economic mobility, mostly through some form of postsecondary education. Sadly, the most ambitious of these—the federal American Graduation Initiative—was sacrificed during the health-care negotiations, although some smaller projects remained in the stimulus package and the Department of Education. Private foundations, notably Gates and Lumina, have been sponsoring such efforts as well. These efforts reach a small percentage of poor and low-income Americans and, on average, are aimed at the more academically skilled among them—although many still require remedial English and mathematics. A certificate or degree alone will not automatically lift them out of hard times—there is a bit of magic-bullet thinking in these college initiatives—but getting a decent basic education could make a significant difference in their lives. At the least, these efforts are among the few antipoverty measures that have some degree of bipartisan support.

For the last year and a half, I have been spending time at an inner-city community college that serves this population, and I have seen firsthand the effects of poverty and long-term joblessness. Although some students attend the college with the goal of transfer, the majority come for its well-regarded occupational programs. More than 90 percent must take one or more basic-skills courses; 60 percent are on financial aid. A fair number have been through the criminal-justice system.

As I have gotten to know these students, the numbers have come alive. Many had chaotic childhoods, went to underperforming schools, and never finished high school. With low-level skills, they have had an awful time in the labor market. Short-term jobs, long stretches of unemployment, no health care. Many, the young ones included, have health problems that are inadequately treated if treated at all. I remember during my first few days on the campus noticing the number of people who walked with a limp or irregular gait.

What really strikes me, though, is students' level of engagement, particularly in the occupational programs. There are a few people who seem to be marking time, but most listen intently as an instructor explains the air-supply system in a diesel engine or the way to sew supports into an evening dress. And they do and redo an assignment until they get it right. Hope and desire are brimming. Many of the students say this is the first time school has meant anything to them. More than a few talk about turning their lives around. It doesn't take long to imagine the kind of society we would have if more people had this opportunity.

But right at the point when opportunity is offered, it is being threatened by severe budget cuts in education and social services. For several years, the college—like so many in the United States—has been able to offer only a small number of summer classes, and classes are being cut during the year. Enrollment in existing classes is growing. Student-support services are scaled back. And all the while, more people are trying to enroll at the college; some will have to be turned away, and those who are admitted will tax an already burdened system.

Given the toll the recession has taken on state and local governments, policy makers face "unprecedented challenges" and say they "have no other choice" but to make cuts in education. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, borrowing a now-ubiquitous phrase, has called the necessity to do more with less "the new normal."

I don't dispute the difficulty of budgeting in the recession, nor the fact that education spending includes waste that should be cut. But we need to resist the framing of our situation as inevitable and normal. This framing makes the recession a catastrophe without culpability, neutralizing the civic and moral dimensions of both the causes of the recession and the way policy makers respond to it.

The civic and moral dimensions also are diminished by the powerful market-based orientation to economic and social problems. Antigovernment, anti-welfare-state, antitax—this ideology undercuts broad-scale public responses to inequality.

If the editors of The Economist are right, the deep cuts in education—especially to programs and institutions that help poor people connect to school or work—will have disastrous long-term economic consequences that far outweigh immediate budgetary gains. And rereading The Other America reminds us that the stakes go beyond the economic to the basic civic question: What kind of society do we want to become? Will there be another Michael Harrington 50 years from now writing about an America that has a higher rate of poverty and even wider social divides?

Mike Rose is a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and the author of Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us (The New Press, 2009).