Our education level is one of the strongest predictors of how healthy and long we will live. Take a 25-year old white man in America. According to a 2016 study, he could expect to live to 70 if he did not have a high school diploma. With a college degree, he could expect to live to 82.
Education may be more powerful than medicine for U.S. life expectancy. A 2007 study found that giving everyone one year of college would have saved 8 times as many lives as medical advances. And that’s because education entails more than simply learning technical information and specific skills. It teaches the range of tools that people need to successfully navigate life in 21 century America.
Education teaches us how to read complex material, how to communicate effectively, how to synthesize information, how to persist through challenging problems, and how to foster personal and professional relationships. The benefits of these skills touch all domains of life. The more schooling one has, the more likely they are to get and keep a job, get and stay married, avoid poverty, avoid smoking and illicit drugs, and raise children in healthy homes. This not only benefits the individual, it also benefits their families, communities, and the country at large.
Our public education system has historically provided our national bootstraps. It is the single best mechanism for social mobility and for avoiding poverty.
There is no downside to education. There is no excess of college graduates destroying opportunities for high school graduates. There is no glut of sociology PhDs driving taxis. College graduates, even those in liberal arts, do not “go out in the world and cause trouble.”
All boats rise with education.
But this way of life may be about to change. The tax bills passed last week by the House and Senate spell disaster for the American education system. For one, the House bill will devastate higher education by taxing graduate students on the cost of their tuition. Both bills also undermine K-12 education by funneling money away from public school and into private ones.
So, why do the House and Senate tax plans attack our education system?
Part of the answer is short-sightedness. Without access to good and affordable education from K-12 through graduate school, who will develop the military technology for national security? Russia? Who will discover a cure for Alzheimer’s? China? Who will develop the next generation of cell phone technology and reap the financial rewards? Japan? National security and prosperity require an educated population.
Part of the answer is nefariousness. Over the past few decades, many state governments have been quietly destroying our public education system. They are starving it from every angle. The voucher system is damaging K-12 education in many states. The retrenchment of state support for public universities has made undergraduate education unaffordable for many. And now the House and Senate tax plans would gut opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate education.
Two recent books, Democracy in Chains by historian Nancy MacLean and Dark Money by journalist Jane Mayer, document how the wealthiest one percent of Americans have been funding the assault. These books describe a calculated history of attempts to unravel our education system. They reveal how the wealthy elite view an educated population as an enemy. It is much easier for these elite to diabolically impose low wages and long hours, pollute with impunity, and make astronomical profits if we are uneducated. We need Congress to stop doing the dirty work of the wealthy one percent.
Consider this: If Congress really believes public education is not worth funding, then why do 94 percent of the House and 100 percent of the Senate have Bachelor’s degrees? And why do 60 percent of the House and 76 percent of the Senate also have degrees beyond a Bachelor’s? Something smells rotten.
To be clear, not everyone needs to go to college. What everyone needs is access to a good K-12 public education system; and access to good, affordable colleges if they want to attend. Nothing can lift the American people like a strong education.
Take my story, for example. I am able to write this piece today for one reason: our government used to invest in education.
My parents graduated high school in the mid-1960s by the skin of their teeth. As newlyweds, they were poor. They lived in a trailer in a small town in Indiana. By the time I was born, only my mother lived in that trailer. My father had been drafted into the Vietnam War. He was killed in the line of duty. You see, if a man was poor, the U.S. Selective Service System did not care that he had a pregnant wife. A wealthy man’s bone spur was worth more than a poor man’s child.
My mother struggled, though I was too young to know this during the early years. I was too young to remember the days that all she had to eat was my leftover baby food. My mother remarried a wonderful man and father. Things got better, but we continued to struggle for many years. We qualified for free school lunch. My Barbie dolls came from neighbors when they outgrew them. My first bicycle came from a dumpster. I loved that orange bike. When I was 6 years old, I asked my parents, “Why are we so poor?” ― a question that hurt them deeply.
We spent the remainder of my childhood striving for middle class. My stepdad went to college while I was young, thanks to the G.I. Bill and the affordability of college in the 1970s. After years of studying and hard work, he landed a good job and we eventually navigated into the middle class.
“Because this country used to invest in and value education, I am alive and healthy. I am able to write this piece. I am able to protest."”
We moved to a nice town and bought a three-bedroom house. This meant access to a good public school system in Indiana in the 1980s. I graduated with excellent grades from a good high school. I went to college, which was affordable in the 1980s. I received a bachelor’s in Math and Master’s in Statistics. After working for many years, I returned to college and earned a PhD in sociology. Thanks to affordable public education, I have been an employed, productive citizen my entire adult life.
This kind of upward mobility is unimaginable today. The proposed House and Senate tax bills ensure that it will always be unimaginable.
Without access to good, affordable, public education from K-12 through college, where would I ― and others like me ― have ended up? Waiting tables in that same small town, in that same trailer, with my joints hurting from long hours on my feet, without health insurance, and in and out of poverty? Would I be self-medicating my despair with alcohol, pain pills, and heroin like so many kids today?
Because this country used to invest in and value education, I am alive and healthy. I am able to write this piece. I am able to protest. Perhaps this is precisely why so many politicians and their wealthy supporters seem hell-bent on destroying our public education system.
Jennifer Karas Montez, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University