Education Can’t Fix Poverty. So Why Keep Insisting that It Can?

Education is not the best anti-poverty program, argues historian Harvey Kantor, and it’s long past time we acknowledged that…

Jennifer Berkshire: I read in the New York Times recently that education is the most powerful force for *reducing poverty and lifting middle-class living standards.* It’s a classic example of what you describe in this excellent history as *educationalizing the welfare state.* 

Harvey Kantor: Education hasn’t always been seen as the solution to social and economic problems in the US. During the New Deal, you had aggressive interventions in providing for economic security and redistribution; education was seen as peripheral. But by the time you get to the Great Society programs of the 1960’s, education and human capital development had moved to the very center. My colleague Robert Lowe and I started trying to think about how that happened and what the consequences were for the way social policy developed in the US from the 1960’s through No Child Left Behind. How is it that there is so much policy making and ideological talk around education and so little around other kinds of anti-poverty and equalizing policies?  We also wanted to try to understand how it was that education came to shoulder so much of the burden for responding to poverty within the context of cutbacks in the welfare state. 

Berkshire: You argue that by making education THE fix for poverty, we’ve ended up fueling disappointment with our public schools, a disillusionment that is essentially misplaced. Explain.

Kantor: One of the consequences of making education so central to social policy has been that we’ve ended up taking the pressure off of the state for the kinds of policies that would be more effective at addressing poverty and economic inequality. Instead we’re asking education to do things it can’t possibly do. The result has been increasing support for the kinds of market-oriented policies that make inequality worse.

If we really want to address issues of inequality and economic insecurity, there are a lot of other policies that we have to pursue besides or at least in addition to education policies, and that part of the debate has been totally lost. Raising the minimum wage, or providing a guaranteed income, which the last time we talked seriously about that was in the late 1960’s, increasing workers’ bargaining power, making tax policies more progressive—things like that are going to be much more effective at addressing inequality and economic security than education policies. That argument is often taken to mean, *schools can’t do anything unless we address poverty first.* But that’s not what we were trying to say.

Berkshire: But isn’t part of the attraction of today’s education reform movement that it holds out the tantalizing possibility that we can correct the effects of poverty without having to do anything about, well, poverty?

Kantor: That’s right. What’s interesting about our our contemporary period is that we’re now saying schools can respond to problems of achievement and that we don’t need to address any of these larger structural issues. When you think about these larger questions—what causes economic inequality? What causes economic insecurity? How are resources distributed? Who has access to what?—they’ve been put off to the side. We’re not doing anything to address these questions at all. 

Berkshire: The belief that poverty can be overcome if we just find the right technocratic fix for what ails our schools reached a crescendo during the Obama Administration. You describe this as substituting accountability for redistribution.

Kantor: One of the end results of the way the accountability movement has transpired and evolved has been to narrow the questions about educational inequality to very technical questions. If we can just put in place the right teacher accountability system, or figure out the right curriculum standards,  that’s going to solve the problem of schools with large numbers of poor kids not doing as well. What I consider very technical questions bracket the larger questions of why it is we have so many kids concentrated in poor schools. Why do the rich kids get better schools? These aren’t just questions about accountability. They’re  more fundamental questions about class and race and power and inequality. Even though the accountability movement has often couched itself in the language of *no excuses,* and *every kid can learn,* its approach has been to narrow the debate even more and make it harder to address the questions that really underlie why some kids get an education that is so much better than other kids.

Berkshire: Well that sounds easy enough. We’ll just just address those fundamental questions about class, race, power and inequality. You go first.

Kantor: It’s not that easy, in part because in the system we have now education is so key to the allocation of opportunity. People who have the most resources preserve their advantages and continue to operate in ways that serve those advantages. It’s a strange paradox, but it’s almost as though the more we try to increase opportunity, the more we increase inequality. It happens largely because upper middle class parents, knowing that education has become this allocative mechanism and the key gateway to preserving one’s advantage, do everything they can to make sure that their kids will have access to the resources that preserve those advantages.

So even while education policy is focused on the schools that poor kids attend, we’re not addressing the inequalities that have to do with the advantages richer parents have and work so hard to maintain. It works to create more inequality at the same time that it can’t really do anything about the other things that are really driving income inequality: minimum wages, unions, tax policy, the concentration of income at the top. So we have this strange situation where we’re trying to address educational inequality while economic inequality is expanding in ways that make educational inequality even worse. We don’t address that kind of paradox at all.

Berkshire: You just used the word paradox. I’d like to throw another *p* word into the mix: plutocrat. I’m thinking, of course, about the outsized role played by billionaires in trying to *fix* our schools while benefiting from the income inequality that you argue is beyond the power of schools to fix.

Kantor: We always think of businessmen and really rich people as being opposed to social policy and against spending money to ameliorate social problems. But since the Progressive Era, we’ve had these periods of really active involvement by business people in social policy, including education. This seems to be one of those times where you have these really rich philanthropists trying to intervene to improve schooling, largely because they’re trying to legitimate the social system. What they wind up doing, though, is displacing the problems of economic inequality that they’ve created through their own economic policies back onto the schools. They can say: *see—we’re doing something about inequality,* but they’re not doing anything about the way that wealth is distributed or the way their companies work that would more fundamentally and directly impact those questions of inequality.

Berkshire: There are some obvious similarities between the current debate over healthcare, which is defined almost completely in terms of individual responsibility, and the direction we seem to be heading educationally. In other words, will future generations even have need for the term *social policy*?

Kantor: I think what has happened in education policy really parallels what’s happened in social policy more generally. You’ve seen a tremendous disillusionment with the idea of social responsibility and *the public.* We’ve seen a shift in thinking about issues of inequality as a social responsibility to a matter of individual responsibility. Each individual is responsible for their own outcome, which is really how the market works. I think that’s the underlying ideological shift that’s driving education policy, and social policy more generally.

Berkshire: We started this interview talking about history and I want to finish there as well. You’ve been thinking about how the *educationalizing* of our approach to poverty went hand-in-hand with the rise of mass imprisonment. This seems like an urgent issue for us to come to grips now, while also demonstrating the essential importance of historians.

Kantor: It now seems to me that we probably need to re-conceptualize the Great Society, not just as an effort to bring African Americans, Latinos, and others into the New Deal social state by expanding educational opportunity and fighting racial discrimination, but also as an effort to address the fear of social disorder those demands for inclusion created. The Great Society centered education policy in ways that intensified the commitment to educational solutions to economic inequality and poverty that is driving educational policy today to the neglect of other positive social policies. But it also planted the seeds of the carceral policies that later blossomed into more punitive policies, aimed at policing the poor and controlling urban unrest, that have resulted in the skyrocketing growth of the prison population. In this sense, we might say that the Great Society set in motion or institutionalized a kind of dual social policy or dual state: a *soft* state focusing on expanding opportunity through education and a *hard* state focused on punishment. From this perspective, the historical question thus becomes not only why the Great Society focused on education rather than expanding the nascent welfare state put in place by the New Deal but also why the war on poverty subsequently gave way to the war on crime.

Harvey Kantor is professor emeritus in the Department of Education, Culture and Society at the University of Utah. He’s the author, with Robert Lowe, of *Educationalizing the Welfare State and Privatizing Education: the Evolution of Social Policy Since the New Deal.*



  1. Kantor describes how ‘accountability’ distracts from directly addressing inequality. Testing is the core of accountability. In some sense, then, the US has substituted testing for a real attack on poverty, damaging schools in the process.

  2. ….and not only are testing companies raking in millions, scarce school-based resources get diverted away from teaching and learning. Special educators close down their programs for weeks at a time to provide mandated testing accommodations. School libraries and computer labs are off limits as they are converted to testing facilities for weeks at a time throughout the year. School counselors become test coordinators and administrators, depriving students of social emotion support and career guidance. The Seattle Times recently tried to calculate the true cost of testing. While the state cost was available, their reporter found districts were unable to provide even a ballpark figure! (EduLab article)

  3. Excellent piece. The marketing of education has resulted in us (university professors) having to treat our students as “customers,” and spending money on amenities as opposed to libraries and excellent instruction. (Not to mention courting foreign students for all the wrong reason, which also results in our being flooded with mostly wealthy foreign students who can pay full tuition. The consequences of that are in today’s NYT.) College education has become vocational. We have been talking about this for years. But this piece takes the longer and broader view about the trends that have produced this, making a more holistic political analysis. Thank you!

  4. RE criticism of testing, grades are almost always a relative measure: at every level in every classroom, teachers/ instructors/ professors find it necessary to accommodate the group they are teaching by modifying lessons/lectures, expectations, exams, the grading curve, etc.; the grades students earn actually show the relative performance of the individual in comparison with his/her peers in that class/ school/ university. Standardized tests, we trust, allow a comparison of the local with the larger group — so we can get a clearer understanding of how well the education of an individual, a class, or a state compares within a broader spectrum.

    1. That depends on how well the tests are designed. Most are actually pretty poor, and change so rapidly that longitudinal study is impossible.

  5. Interesting conversation. I’d like to hear more community leaders talk about this. Reposted on

  6. The professor is right to conclude that education in the U.S. has served to certify and reinforce economic privilege rather than “level the playing field.” In fact, economic mobility has gotten worse with the U.S. and U.K. ranking at the bottom of mobility among Western countries (see ). The U.S. used to be first – there really was an American dream.
    Somehow we have to rethink how to link educational supply with labor market demand without being too vocational about it. One way is to reward attaining academic skills with opportunities for employment or further education in the student’s field of career interest. An example of such an approach: . Another way is to test in high poverty neighborhoods the feasibility of various plans to create wealth among the residents (e.g. Jack Kemp’s “Economic Opportunity Zones” during the presidency of Bush 41). Or to reward individuals in low-income neighborhoods for following a “success sequence” as I describe here:

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