Why More Education Won’t Fix Economic Inequality

Why More Education Won’t Fix Economic Inequality

In this Friday, Oct. 19, 2012 photo, students study in a library on the campus of California State University, Long Beach in Long Beach, Calif. Standard and Poor's estimates that economy could grow at an additional 1 percent a year, or $185 billion annually, if the share of Americans pursuing additional schooling increased at the same average as 15 years ago. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
In this Friday, Oct. 19, 2012 photo, students study in a library on the campus of California State University, Long Beach in Long Beach, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

(New York Times) – Suppose you accept the persuasive data that inequality has been rising in the United States and most advanced nations in recent decades. But suppose you don’t want to fight inequality through politically polarizing steps like higher taxes on the wealthy or a more generous social welfare system.

There remains a plausible solution to rising inequality that avoids those polarizing ideas: strengthening education so that more Americans can benefit from the advances of the 21st-century economy. This is a solution that conservativescentrists and liberals alike can comfortably get behind. After all, who doesn’t favor a stronger educational system? But a new paper shows why the math just doesn’t add up, at least if the goal is addressing the gap between the very rich and everyone else.

Brad Hershbein, Melissa Kearney and Lawrence Summers offer a simple little simulation that shows the limits of education as an inequality-fighter. In short, more education would be great news for middle and lower-income Americans, increasing their pay and economic security. It just isn’t up to the task of meaningfully reducing inequality, which is being driven by the sharp upward movement of the very top of the income distribution.

It is all the more interesting that the research comes from Mr. Summers, a former Treasury secretary who is hardly known as a soak-the-rich class warrior. It is published by the Hamilton Project, a centrist research group operating with Wall Street funding and seeking to find third-way-style solutions to America’s problems that can unite left and right.

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