Best weapon against poverty is education

Poverty is much more common than most people realize. According to a recent report by the Census Bureau, 49.1 million Americans fell under the poverty line in 2010. The young and elderly, society’s most vulnerable members, made up a disproportionate share of that total.

Just how much is 49.1 million? To reach that number, you would have to take the combined populations of Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, West Virginia, Idaho, Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, South Dakota, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming.

And then double the total.

So, yes, poverty is a widespread problem. But there is more to it than that. We live in — by some measures — the richest nation in the world. Allowing so many of our fellow citizens struggle in poverty is, I believe, one of our greatest moral failings.

We can — and must — do better.

The first step in fighting poverty is to come to terms with a difficult reality: We live in a much different America than the America our parents and grandparents knew. It used to be possible for anyone to secure a well-paying job at a local factory, regardless of education or prior work experience.

That is no longer the case. As Thomas Friedman has pointed out, the world is flattening. Barriers to trade have been cut.

Transportation costs have fallen. Communication technologies have grown. And, through it all, manufacturing jobs have shifted overseas as new labor markets have opened.

My generation is not only competing with our fellow classmates for jobs — not only with those in the same town, state or even the same country — but with a swelling pool of talent across the world. While our parents were able to go out and search for a job upon graduation, it is becoming more and more necessary for today’s graduates to go out and create jobs of their own.

As America shifts from a production economy to an ideas economy, the importance of education grows. But, at a time when it is needed the most, our education system is falling behind its international competitors in Europe and Asia, especially in critical fields like science and math.

That is not acceptable. We should have the best public school system in the world, no matter the costs.

To turn things around, our education system needs a dramatic reimagining. The purpose of education should be simple: to teach kids how to think, not what to think. Education should not be about book learning and rote memorization. Nor should it be about filling kids’ heads with the thoughts of other men. Rather, education should be about teaching kids to think for themselves and how to approach problems with a critical eye.

Education should also be technology-focused. Isn’t it time we replaced cursive lessons with typewriting lessons? Can’t we begin to teach kids how to search through online databases rather than outdated card catalogs? And when are public school classrooms going to begin to tap into the enormous potential of tablet computers?

Then there is the elephant in the room: the ungodly costs of college tuition. According to the College Board, college costs are rising at double the rate of inflation. For many, this means years upon years of student loans. To make ends meet, students are now borrowing at double the rate they did a decade ago. For others, it means that their dream of attending college is becoming increasingly dim.

This should not be happening. Access to post-secondary education should be a universal right for moral and financial reasons. The average college graduate makes $1.3 million more over his lifetime than someone who lacks a college degree. Even if government covered the entire cost of tuition, the average return on investment thanks to increased tax revenues would be upward of 160 percent — 50 times greater than 30-year treasury bond rates even before you include less tangible benefits like lower crime rates, less dependence on government programs and so forth.

Republicans are correct to point out that ending — or at least reducing — poverty has a lot to do with the individual. There is nothing more empowering than realizing that you are the master of your fate and that the best way to improve your life is to work hard and get a good education.

It is also true that government isn’t good at molding culture or work ethic. But government can lend a hand around the edges. And one of the best ways for government to fight poverty would be to reform our lagging education system, which needs to focus less on the static needs of a 20th century production economy and more on the dynamic needs of a 21st century ideas economy.

Jason is a senior in Engineering and Business.