A few thoughts as I watch my dog, Julie, snore in her sleep in my bed.
Our fearless leader, President Obama, talks a lot about helping the middle class, and about helping Americans who are not middle class get into the middle class.
It is a great goal and I am sure that Mr. Obama’s pollsters and advisers and those of the Democratic Party have reason to believe that “middle class” is a phrase that resonates well with Americans.
So President Obama has various plans and agendas supposedly to help Americans elevate their class status or at least maintain their class perch.
The problem with all of these is that there is literally not a single major thing that the federal government by itself can do to elevate large numbers of Americans’ social status.
Class status is primarily determined by income, of course. In turn, that is determined by the value of what a worker can produce. That, in turn is overwhelmingly determined by the level of education of the worker. There are other factors at work, such as family connections, looks, and personality, but the elephant in the room is education. If every American acquired more education, knew more, knew how to use more machinery, knew more about plumbing or air conditioning, we would have an America moving towards a larger middle class.
The problem is that Americans — by and large and with many exceptions — are learning less year by year. Yes, more Americans graduate from high school than ever before. But test data shows they know less and less every year — and far less than young men and women of their age level in competing countries.
Only a minority of high school students are capable of working at grade level in language when they are seniors in high school. Only a small minority are capable of achieving at grade level in math at that age.
This is not a problem of paying for school. High school is already free. It is a problem of students who are unwilling to sit down and study and learn the way kids in Korea or Taiwan or Finland do.
Yes, more Americans go to college than ever have before and the difference in the past fifty years is immense. But the data about how much they come out knowing is intensely discouraging. It is not at all rare for college students to know less as seniors in college than they did as seniors in high school.
As the economy gathers strength, there are serious shortages of skilled industrial workers, electricians, computer code writers, and plumbers — all areas where teaching is readily available for free or almost free in high schools and community colleges. These jobs often pay middle class wages, and certainly do if both husband and wife are employed. But, again, the jobs are going begging. Too many Americans just will not work to learn those vital skills.
President Obama is, I am sure, sincere in wanting to help Americans move into the middle class. And I applaud his raising the minimum wage where possible. The minimum wage is inexcusably low in most areas.
But real progress in moving to the middle class comes about through education and through the grit and determination of Americans. Mr. Obama cannot do it by waving a pen. I wish he could. But he can’t.
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