I attended a terrific conference this week – co hosted by CEOs for Cities and United Way for Southeastern Michigan – on reducing poverty. The mission was to identify local actions that can significantly reduce poverty over the next two to four years. In my presentation, unfortunately, I said we don’t know how to do that.
Nationally there are two areas that can make a big difference in reducing poverty in the short term: full employment and an expanded safety net. Both are powerful tools for large scale poverty reduction. Local efforts that can achieve at scale poverty reductions are hard to identify. Yes we should do whatever we can to boost job creation. But as I have written in previous blogs state, regional and local levers to do that are not strong. And yes we should build a regional transit system so that city residents – where poverty is concentrated – can access jobs in the suburbs.
But ultimately the chief state and local responsibility for reducing poverty is education and training. Preparing people for jobs that pay above poverty wages and benefits. Unfortunately, no matter what the time horizon, we are not very good at doing that with most of the chronically unemployed, the working poor or those who are newly unemployed. With each group there are barriers to gaining the needed skills for those better paying jobs. For the chronically unemployed there are a whole set of ready to work barriers that we are not very good at overcoming. And then for all three groups there is the low foundation skill challenge. Lots of adults who sign up for training end up in remedial programs and never make it out.
For adults who get beyond those barriers, our community colleges, by and large, are very good at teaching occupational skills. But for far too many we are unable to help them overcome those barriers. And there is little evidence that we are improving our success rate. Or even have developed models that provide a framework for how we can get substantially better participant outcomes. The adult training system is characterized by too many of the same operators, providing the same services, with the same bad results decade after decade.
Contrast that to urban k-12 education. Where we have made substantial progress in learning how to prepare children growing up in low income households for the better paying jobs of the future. We obviously have a long way to go to get to the scale we need. But there seems to be a known path to get there.
That has led me to consider replicating the drivers that have allowed us to develop new models in urban education. A combination of the money following the student and accountability standards. Choice allows new entrants, which gets you innovation. Some of which will get good results, some of which won’t. That is where meaningful accountability standards come again. They should be used to close down the worse programs/agencies as well as help students shop for high quality programs.