Commentary | Economic Growth

How the jobs crisis creates an education crisis

This piece was originally published on December 21 in The National Journal.

Providing stimulus money without conditions is not only a good idea; it is the only decent idea.

We are in a serious economic crisis, have only barely dodged a full-blown depression, and although the economy is now in recovery, this is still mostly a jobless recovery, with unemployment still at 10% and likely to remain unacceptably high for some time.

Stimulating the economy has to be our priority. Providing subsidies for jobs in schools not only employs educators, and cafeteria workers, and janitors, but the paychecks these employed public sector workers spend contributes to expanding employment in the private sector as well.

Political posturing like that of Rep. John Kline (R-Minn) notwithstanding, it is now apparent that the original stimulus bill prevented a serious recession from turning into something much worse. As the President’s Council of Economic Advisors notes, in a report whose technical accuracy has not been seriously disputed, “Estimates of the impact of the ARRA [the stimulus bill] made by comparing actual economic performance to the predictions of a plausible, statistical baseline suggest that the Recovery Act added roughly 2.3 percentage points to real GDP growth in the second quarter and is likely to add even more to growth in the third quarter.” The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has reported that “in the third quarter of calendar year 2009, an additional 600,000 to 1.6 million people were employed in the United States, and real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product (GDP) was 1.2 percent to 3.2 percent higher, than would have been the case in the absence of ARRA.”

Nonetheless, unemployment at the levels we are now experiencing is not only an inconvenience. It is a tragedy. Its academic effects will likely overwhelm any school reform efforts.

The Census Bureau recently reported that the child poverty rate rose to 19.0% in 2008, from 18% in 2007. The number is undoubtedly now even higher, as unemployment grew substantially during 2009. Poverty directly depresses student achievement, as more children come to school hungry, homeless, and from households under severe stress.

A 10% unemployment rate will produce a black child poverty rate of over 50%. This is not only a human disaster, but an educational catastrophe. In such an environment, hopes of narrowing the black-white achievement gap will evaporate.

A recent policy brief by Algernon Austin of the Economic Policy Institute notes:

From 2007 to 2008, the country experienced a historic rise in the number of households that did not have consistent and dependable access to sufficient food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) calls these households “food insecure.” The number of food insecure households increased by over 4 million nationally to reach 17.1 million. In 2008, 10.7 percent of white households were food insecure, but 25.7 percent of black households were in this condition. Although the official 2009 USDA data is not yet available, it is likely that the numbers of food insecure households increased by a large amount this year.

Hunger is a problem in itself. But it also matters because of the long-term harm it causes, particularly in children. Children growing up in food insecure households are more likely to be in poor physical and psychological health. They have more behavioral problems and do worse in school. We want black children to do better in school, but academic improvements are not likely to occur when more and more black children are growing up in households facing hunger.

Recent economic research is more specific about what negative educational outcomes we should expect in coming years. University of California, Davis economists, Ann Huff Stevens and Jessamyn Schaller, find that children who have a parent who experiences a job loss are 15 percent more likely to be held back a grade in school.

When Congress debated the first economic stimulus bill last January, critics accused the Obama Administration and the Democratic Congress of using the bill as a masquerade for hidden domestic policy initiatives that had nothing to do with job creation or economic growth. While this criticism was off-base with regard to most of the $787 billion package, it was on target when it came to discretionary funds given to the Department of Education. No matter how meritorious it may be to expand charter schools, link teacher evaluation to student achievement, turn around low-performing schools, improve teacher quality and distribution, advance standards and assessments, and raise the bar on data collection, these do not create significant numbers of jobs, and do not belong in an economic stimulus program. They should properly be taken up and debated in the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, not now.