It's like saying, if you're not an NBA basketball superstar, you just didn't try hard enough. The newest conservative rationale for shrugging off poverty is that everyone has the opportunity to be a Horatio Alger if they go to college. College graduates earn much more than high school graduates on average and have much lower unemployment rates in hard times. In a recent op-ed column in the New York Times, David Brooks wrote that the (relative) benefits of higher education "have steadily risen" over time. In 1979, college graduates averaged 38 percent more income than high school graduates. Now it's 75 percent more. So, you should go to college.
What Brooks fails to mention is that the median annual compensation for high school graduates has actually fallen by 28.4 percent (for males) over the past 30 years (from $44,200 to $32,000 in 2008), and by more than half after including inflation. Many millions of well-paying middle-class jobs for high school graduates have been outsourced, or were eliminated by automation, or have simply disappeared as businesses have lost out to foreign competition. Or else the pay scales have been ratcheted downward. General Motors pays its older workers $28 per hour. New hires get $14 per hour. And Walmart, the nation's largest employer, pays a little over $10 per hour.
There are now close to 50 million people living in poverty in our country. Of these, some 25 million are unemployed or underemployed workers, many of them long-term (more than a year) who are desperately seeking good jobs. Or they have never been employed. It is estimated that currently there is one job available for every five people who are looking for work. Of those who do have jobs, 47 percent are "working poor" earning less than $25,000 a year—close to the poverty line for a family of four. (A recent study by a women's organization showed that even a single worker must earn at least $30,000 to have enough to save for emergencies and retirement, not to mention a college education for their children.)
Of course, unemployment and low wages are not the only obstacles to getting a college education in poor families. The costs for attending college have continued to escalate (up more than 130 percent in the past 20 years), and even a four-year public college today costs $20,339 a year on average, according to the College Board. Even middle-class students are graduating with an average of more than $23,000 in student loans. For most of the poor in our country, college is financially way out of reach. In fact, the rate of "upward" social mobility in this country is among the worst of the major OECD nations. The "land of opportunity" has become a myth for most people at the bottom of the economic pyramid.
Finally, the Horatio Alger, up by the "bootstraps" model ignores a fundamental reality—our biological and social diversity. Even Plato in The Republic more than 2000 years ago recognized that every society is made up of people with different abilities and interests that suit them for different roles, and this has been overwhelmingly confirmed in the past 100 years of empirical research in behavior genetics (where I had a post-doctoral research fellowship many years ago).
Like all other traits in humankind (and in every other species), variation is the rule both in our personalities and in our talents and intellectual abilities. Overall, about 50 percent of the variance in our major personality traits and mental abilities can be attributed to "heritable" gene-based variations. Likewise, many studies over the years have shown that environmental differences— everything from childhood nutrition and access to health care to family influences, peer relationships and the quality of the schools—can make a major difference in our performance as mature adults.
So, a society that provides generous rewards for college graduates and eliminates or downgrades "blue collar" jobs, while making a college education a prerequisite for a decent job with decent pay, is fundamentally unfair. A cartoon currently making the rounds on the Internet says it all.
It's not necessarily your own fault if you can't climb that tree—or get a college degree. We need to re-create an economy where even high school graduates can once again thrive.