Watching the presidential candidates of both parties debating and campaigning against each other, I find my attention wandering. Neither the questions I hear them being asked nor the answers I hear them giving address what I take to be the central problems this country faces.
Not one questioner in the debates has asked the candidates what they would do about the fact that the United States, not so long ago the home of the best educated workforce in the industrialized world, is now among the least well-educated industrialized nations in the world. This is not a problem. It is a catastrophe. This country charges more for its labor than all but a very few countries in the world. If global employers can get better educated and higher skilled workers in countries that charge less for similarly skilled labor, then they will do exactly that and our citizens will not be able to find work.
You thought I was speculating about the future. Actually, I am talking about the present. We celebrate what is now a very low unemployment rate. But that low unemployment rate does not count those who have given up looking for work. If you want to find that group of people, look at the ratio of people who are working to the group of working-age people. Thirty years or so ago, more and more working-age adults were joining the paid workforce. More precisely, as the real wages of American workers were eroding, women who had been full-time moms joined the ranks of the paid workforce to supplement their family income, to make ends meet. That came to an end about eight years ago as people of working age—mostly white men—began to leave the workforce in very large numbers. These were people with only a high school diploma or no high school diploma. These are the people who have only a 7th or 8th grade level of literacy, the people who are being put out of work by automation or by people in other countries who have the same level of literacy and are willing to work for less.
A new study shows that this group of displaced workers is not only out of work, but lack of jobs and income are leading to their dying at earlier and earlier ages. The direct cause is often drugs and suicide, but the underlying cause is the lack of the education and skills that would make them employable. Only in the United States is there a group of working age people who are dying at earlier and earlier ages.
We talk airily about making sure all high school graduates are college- and work-ready. We talk about great progress on that score. It is, I submit, all a mirage. I see very little evidence of any such achievement in the NAEP scores. The reality is that the average American high school graduate has only a 7th or 8th grade level of literacy and that has not changed at all in decades. Those average high school graduates cannot read the typical first year community college textbook and the majority are not ready to succeed in a first year college course called College Math or College Algebra. This despite the reality that the course is not College Math or College Algebra at all, but is in fact only Algebra I, which our high school graduates should have passed in the 8th grade. We are sending our high school graduates to something we call college, but, in most cases, what we are sending them to is only high school dressed up as college and they still cannot do the work.
If nothing changes, American wages will fall until they are the same as the wages in other countries with the same levels of literacy. That means that average workers’ wages will be a quarter or less than they are now, and that is for those who are employed. The process is underway right now. The ratio of employed workers to working-age people in the United States will continue to fall, people will die at earlier and earlier ages of suicide and drugs and the social compact will fall apart. Employed professionals and managers will have to barricade themselves in their castles and hire armed guards to protect themselves just as they do now in various parts of the world.
If that is not a national emergency, I do not know what is. Questions about what the presidential candidates would do about the situation I just described should be the most often-asked questions in the debates and on the campaign trail. But they are not being asked at all.
I’ve asked myself why that might be. One clue is what we have learned from the countries with very high levels of student performance. In almost every case, at some point in the last three decades or so, a consensus was developed in those countries that they wanted broadly shared prosperity. In all but one case, those countries had little to speak of in terms of natural resources. So the only way to achieve broadly shared prosperity was to develop the skills of their people.
This is a crucial decision for any country. Countries that compete on the price of their labor force and the price of their products and services have strong incentives to keep wages low and very weak incentives to improve the education and training of their labor force. Those that decide to compete on the quality of the products they make and the services they offer cannot succeed without a highly educated and trained labor force. A nation’s economic strategy essentially determines its education and training strategy.
I conclude that the core problem in the United States is that we have not ever come to a consensus on the kind of economy we want. There are whole sections of the country and whole sectors of the economy that are competing on the price of their labor and not on the value they add to the services they offer and the products they make. Those sections and sectors are not advocates of public investment in education and training, nor are they champions of the kinds of changes in education and training policy that would be needed to greatly improve the education and skills of our workforce. And there are other sections of our country in which the economy is driven by highly paid, very creative professionals whose education is among the best the world has to offer, the sorts of places Richard Florida writes about.
It will take political leadership of a high order to help our people understand that successful competition does not depend on keeping wages down but rather on giving our workers the high skills that will require their employers to pay them very well. The United States cannot spend its way out of its economic predicament. It cannot get there by reducing taxes and regulation. The only economic development strategy that will work is one that is based on getting to broadly shared prosperity by making the right investments in the knowledge and skills of our people.
So I am waiting for the journalists to ask the candidates how long they think the United States will continue to be wealthy now that it is has one of the least well educated workforces in the industrialized world. I can’t wait for them to ask what they are going to do about the large and growing fraction of the workforce who wants work and can’t find it because they don’t have the skills employers are looking for. I am sitting on the edge of my chair waiting for someone to ask what the candidate would do about a country in which the majority of high school graduates going to college can’t do high school-level work and have a hard time doing middle school-level work. Everyone is asking what the candidates would do about the high cost of college, but no one is asking why we are charging college-going rates for an education experience that should have been supplied to the student free of charge in high school.
These are not questions just about education. They are questions about the future of this country, whether we will be able to support our families and ourselves in the future, whether we will have a citizenry that knows what they need to know to make intelligent decisions in the voting booth, whether we can afford to defend our country. These are questions that get to the future of everything we care about. But they are not being asked.
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