Call for an urban GI Bill for the poor

September 07, 1998|By Michael A. Conte

EACH LABOR DAY America celebrates its progress as a great provider. Average real family income has risen by almost one percent a year for the past generation. Since World War II, the unemployment rate has risen above 8 percent for two periods -- for a couple months in 1975 and late 1981 through December 1983. This country's record of economic prosperity is unparalleled in the world.

Some Eastern Europeans jokingly refer to the United States as the "wild west" because of our commitment to freedom in hiring and firing. Former Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich characterized America's labor force in the 1990s as the "worried generation" because of the realization that fewer and fewer jobs are guaranteed forever.

Wild growth

But what is really wild is the productivity growth that we have seen, and the resulting worldwide competitiveness of America's products and services abroad. As a result of these trends, finding a job in America is easier than finding one abroad.

Economic security can be interpreted in lots of ways. Europeans define it in terms of the probability of losing a job, while Americans define it in terms of the probability of being employed. You are a lot less likely to lose your job in Europe or Japan, but you are much more likely to find a new one in America.

That may seem like having to choose between burning and drowning. But America is adaptive, while the European and Japanese are not. The future world economy belongs to economic systems that can adapt, and America is proving that point now.

Labor's challenge in America now is not finding a job; it is finding a good job. Increasingly, the labor force is being polarized between low-paying and high-paying jobs. This is Maryland's problem as well, especially in Baltimore. This in spite of the emphasis on technology and bioscience. What is the reason for this?

Economists look at everything as being determined by supply and demand. So let's try to use these two simple tools to analyze this problem. There is no shortage of demand for highly skilled talent anywhere in America. If you can program a computer, wield a blow torch, make a machine, create a design, fix a sink or tile a floor, you can find work.

Promise of an education

If you can't read, however, you are sunk. There is no demand for nonreaders. And in the increasingly technical world of the 21st century, there will be less and less demand for high school dropouts.

Maryland is known for having a highly educated work force. Statistics bear this out. According to census data, 26.5 percent of Maryland residents had college or advanced degrees in 1990, compared with 20.3 percent for the nation.

What's more, Maryland's statistics have even improved in this decade, rising to 27.1 percent by this year, compared with 20.7 percent nationwide. Baltimore had a higher fraction of residents with advanced degrees than the country in both years.

The bad news is that the city, and similarly the state, is divided into two groups: the highly qualified and the unqualified. Nationally, 24.8 percent of the population has not completed high school. In Baltimore, however, there were 64 census tracts in 1990 where high school dropouts comprised more than half the population.

The worse news is that the situation isn't changing. The number of census tracts in Baltimore where more than half of the population had less than a high school education has increased in the decade.

National experiments have shown that children want to learn if they are given two things: an environment conducive to learning and a reason to believe that their education will translate into a job. You may have heard of the philanthropists who've guaranteed everyone in a class a free college education if they got good grades.

Amazingly, the strategy worked. Kids from poor environments studied and got good grades and went to college. Not every student did well, but more did well than would have been expected from the schools involved.

The GI Bill provided an opportunity for returning soldiers to learn after World War II, and the great majority of those eligible took advantage of it. Many participants, when interviewed later, said that they could not have achieved what they did without it. The GI bill was the best economic development program that the United States ever had.

We need an urban version of the GI bill to counteract the dropout statistics in Baltimore and other poor areas of the state. If children see that they really do have a chance, real life experiments have shown that they will stay in school.

This Labor Day, let's think about the one thing that tomorrow's labor force needs -- a promise of education.

Michael A. Conte is director of RESI, a research institute of Towson University.

Pub Date: 9/07/98

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