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Suburban neighborhood in the eastern USA (Shutterstock)

Road to the Middle Class

February 22, 2018
A conversation with Anne Wicks, Matthew Rooney, and Amanda Schnetzer hosted by William McKenzie
Some Americans wonder whether their democracy still delivers for them. That includes whether they can make it to a middle class that opens up opportunities for them and their families.

The Bush Institute asked three of its experts -- Anne Wicks, director of education reform; Matthew Rooney, director of economic growth; and Amanda Schnetzer, director of global initiatives -- to draw upon their expertise and discuss the best ways to grow the middle class – and why that matters.  

We all know that a strong middle class stabilizes our democracy. But how do you make the case that the road to the middle class starts in the classroom? 

Rooney: I’m not an education specialist, but as an economist I think that case is a slam-dunk. The historical arc of American society shows it:  the U.S. became a global power, an innovation leader, and a focus of admiration around the world at the same time as we invested in education, required all children to go to school, and used programs like the land-grant universities and, later, the G.I. Bill, to encourage people to pursue higher education. The crisis of education that we are currently experiencing, and the crisis of affordability of higher education in particular, arise as our middle class seems to be hollowing itself out. I think there is causation here, not just correlation. 

...the U.S. became a global power, an innovation leader, and a focus of admiration around the world at the same time as we invested in education, required all children to go to school, and used programs like the land-grant universities and, later, the G.I. Bill, to encourage people to pursue higher education.

Schnetzer: There is a lot of discussion in our country right now about the value of an education. As a parent, I probably pay the most attention to this in the context of higher education and whether 

the rising price of a college degree is worth the economic opportunity and earning power that follows graduation. And here, as with most things in life, is where having good data can help cut through some of the increasingly impassioned debate and discussion.  

For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics gives pretty clear evidence that unemployment rates decrease and earnings increase as educational attainment levels rise. Meaning, someone with a high school diploma is more likely to have a job and make more money than someone who doesn’t have one. And so on up the education ladder.  

There is a serious discussion to be had in this country about the skyrocketing costs of a higher education. That worries me for my child. It worries me for my country. But that shouldn’t cloud any discussion about whether education is critical to becoming part of the middle class. It is. 

Wicks: The best part of having some money is that it gives you choices – conversely, a lack of money often forces a decision on you.  

We need young people to graduate from our K-12 system with choices about their own futures – they can choose to go to college, they can choose to pursue a certificate or technical degree, they can choose to join the military. That kind of agency gives them the opportunity to support themselves and their family and to make civic and social connections that matter over the long term.  

If young people, particularly those in low-income neighborhoods and communities, graduate or leave our K-12 system unprepared for what is next, the middle class is most likely out of their reach. 

We need young people to graduate from our K-12 system with choices about their own futures – they can choose to go to college, they can choose to pursue a certificate or technical degree, they can choose to join the military. That kind of agency gives them the opportunity to support themselves and their family and to make civic and social connections that matter over the long term.

So, we agree that education is crucial. But how do we help students get on a path that leads them to a meaningful future? Is that more relevant classes? Better job training in community colleges? Civics education for all students? Something else? 

Wicks: Silver bullets are myths, but we cannot seem to resist their siren call in public discourse. While all the things you listed matter, it will be difficult for any young person to succeed in any field if they are unable to read, write, and do math.   

In order to get more young people on the path for the middle class, we need to do three things well – and innovate in one particular area. First, we need to set high standards for what kids should learn. Second, we need to use high-quality assessments to track student progress. Third, we need to use data from those assessments to intervene appropriately with the adults in charge of that learning and the students doing the learning.   

As for the innovation, I am interested in partnerships between K-12, higher education, and industry that help pull students through the system directly into jobs. I think we all like to go to the innovation part first because it is flashy and new instead of focusing on the unsexy but important work of the 3 R’s.  

I am interested in partnerships between K-12, higher education, and industry that help pull students through the system directly into jobs. I think we all like to go to the innovation part first because it is flashy and new instead of focusing on the unsexy but important work of the 3 R’s.

Rooney: My own kids’ experience with our education system leaves me with the impression that civics and economics – both personal economics in the sense of how credit cards and mortgages work and the theoretical basis of national economic policy – are not sufficiently taught in our schools.   

The young people I come in contact with when speaking at college campuses or high schools are very bright, very open-minded, and even globalized in their outlook. But they don’t have the theoretical tools to understand how our national budget works, the impact of deficits, or how to evaluate economic ideas that are debated in the context of a campaign. And they don’t have the understanding of how our government is structured and who has authority over what to make a fully informed evaluation of a candidate’s positions and rhetoric. 

Schnetzer: I suspect the answer to this question is “all of the above, and then some.” Completing a good K-12 education is an essential part, and I’m grateful for colleagues like Anne here at the Bush Institute who not only know what that education needs to look like today to position our children for success but are doing something about it. And that the solutions might not be one size fits all.  

When I see the words “meaningful future,” though, I can’t help but think of some of the other dimensions of this. A stable family and home life. A local and national civic culture that continues to inspire children to reach for the American dream. Local, state, and national leaders who are working toward that shared vision of the common good and can get past partisanship to ensure that our democracy continues to deliver on its promises of life, liberty, and happiness. 

When I see the words 'meaningful future,' though, I can’t help but think of some of the other dimensions of this. A stable family and home life. A local and national civic culture that continues to inspire children to reach for the American dream.

You each have touched on the role of strong mediating institutions, mostly at the local level. How do we capitalize on them so more people have a shot at the middle class? As you know, some communities have been hollowed out by the changing nature of the economy. 

Schnetzer: As with most things in life, there is both a challenge and an opportunity here. The challenge right now is that Americans’ trust in nearly every mediating institution — except the military, the police, and small business  is horribly low. So from Congress to the media to public education to organized religion to big business there is a need to rebuild that trust. 

The opportunity is that we live in a democratic society that is historically creative, entrepreneurial, and innovative enough to find solutions and correct mistakes. Some of the most interesting things happening in communities across the country are public-private partnerships between local governments, associations and community groups, and businesses to address today’s challenges. 

I think about Detroit, for example, where community leaders and businesses like JPMorgan Chase are working to revitalize the economy. Efforts like these give me hope that more people, not less, still have a shot at the middle class. 

The challenge right now is that Americans’ trust in nearly every mediating institution — except the military, the police, and small business  is horribly low. So from Congress to the media to public education to organized religion to big business there is a need to rebuild that trust.

Wicks: Strong mediating institutions are so distinctly American (in the best sort of ways). The communities that are responding to change are led by those kinds of institutions. Clergy, city planners, city council members, superintendents, mayors, community college presidents, doctors, philanthropists, chambers of commerce leaders, and the like are the ones who best understand their community’s needs and strengths. Community or regional coalitions matter greatly in places that need to retain or attract opportunity for local citizens. What would work here and why? And how can we get it done? 

Rooney: I perceive a generalized hostility to government – as though the government were an alien force that has somehow infiltrated our nation – that has metastasized to the point where it inhibits our ability as a nation and as communities to take action in the face of challenges. Obviously, we need to strike the right balance among federal, state, and local government, but any nation that hopes to prosper and defend itself must be governed.  

This is acutely clear as we watch our economy evolve around us, straining our education system, even as we are incapable of setting priorities at the national level. At the same time, state and local levels are increasingly gridlocked by partisan politics. As long as we refuse to govern ourselves, we are in trouble – let’s recall that Americans fought to establish the Constitution, which in turn established the U.S. government.  

That system has stood us in good stead over the past 240 years, made a farming colony into the leading innovator and made a middle class out of a rural proletariat. There’s no reason we can’t turn the current challenge into an opportunity to do this again. 

Drawing upon your areas of expertise, what are your thoughts about how we get more people on the road to the middle class from rural America? As you know, what's giving rise to some of today's populism is the strain between urban and rural America. 

Wicks: This question is so important and so difficult to answer. Human migration from rural to urban settings due to economic drivers has occurred for hundreds of years around the world, but I am not sure that is comforting to people today who see opportunities in their rural community fade away.  

Two ideas come to mind. First, schools in rural communities must seek and incorporate virtual access to advanced curriculum and resources that they may not have on their campus. Opportunity gaps close if kids living on farms in North Dakota have the same access to chemistry as do the kids in an affluent suburb of Minneapolis. 

Second, entrepreneurs are not only found in Silicon Valley. Entrepreneurship in rural areas and small towns puts people to work, adds to the tax base, and connects people to others beyond the region. Connection matters. Transportation matters. Agency matters. 

Rooney: One of the beauties of our system is that the Electoral College makes it impossible to ignore thinly populated areas of the country, as we learned  again  in 2016. We have to ensure those people are plugged in to the global market -- literally, through good broadband, but also figuratively, through education and economic opportunity.  

That shouldn't be hard, but it will likely take more than spontaneous private investment -- we will need government at all levels to create incentives and ensure that transportation and communication infrastructure is up to the job. Like it or not, that will take public expenditures -- not that government will build everything, but we have to be realistic that those projects aren't going to be on the top of the profitability list without a strong signal from communities at the local, state and national level. 

One of the beauties of our system is that the Electoral College makes it impossible to ignore thinly populated areas of the country, as we learned -- again  in 2016. We have to ensure those people are plugged in to the global market  literally, through good broadband, but also figuratively, through education and economic opportunity.

Schnetzer: Too many Americans today don't feel like democracy is delivering in their lives. It's not that they no longer believe in the basic principles of a democratic society. It's that they don't see a path forward that get them anywhere close to living the American dream. This is especially true in parts of rural America where poverty rates are now higher than in urban areas.  

My work has traditionally focused on working with individuals in other countries who have a vision of what peace, prosperity, and freedom would look like and need our help to get there. These are people who may never have known the blessings of liberty, as we do here, but share in our sense that a life of freedom is better than a life of oppression. 

The United States has traditionally been a leader in advancing this cause, because it's the right thing to do and because it benefits the peace and prosperity of all Americans. We're at a bit of a crossroads now, though, where in order to remain that leader globally we need to reaffirm and strengthen core values and institutions of democracy at home. 

In an economic sense, that means ensuring that more people from rural and Rust Belt communities can respond to changes in the global economy and be prepared for 21st century jobs that pay well and support individuals and families. This certainly takes us back to education and its role. It takes us back to leadership. It's also about the need for Americans to continue having a shared vision about the potential for a better life, that it's less about "us versus them" and more about "We the people."