Last week, Brookings published a paper by my colleague, Jonathan Rothwell, focused on the extent to which low-income kids are concentrated in low-performing schools, as measured by test scores. The paper puts rigorous analysis and hard numbers behind what people living in metro areas like Bridgeport, Buffalo, and Baltimore already know: If you’re poor, and especially if you’re poor and black, you likely aren’t getting the education you’re going need to get a decent job or even to qualify to train for a one.
This isn’t just an issue of equity; it’s also about opportunity and economic security for families, communities, and the nation as a whole.
A new report focused on Baltimore homes in on this point, examining how education and skills barriers keep residents in low-wage jobs, which in turn helps keep them from reaching the coveted middle class. Indeed, about three-quarters of the Baltimore metro’s low-income workers are employed in just handful of industries, including healthcare, social, and educational services, arts and entertainment, and accommodation and food services. These industries don’t pay uniformly low wages, but they are big regional employers, with large numbers of low-wage occupations.
That low-income people tend to work in low-paying jobs seems a pretty obvious point. But what’s a more than a little disconcerting about this fact is that it’s the lowest-wage industries in the metro that have been growing the fastest over the past few decades. What’s worse, real wages in some of these industries—like food service and drinking establishments, as well as social assistance—have actually dropped. The opposite is true for high-paying, wage-growing sectors like manufacturing, which have seen their job numbers plummet.
The big takeaway here is that creating better opportunities for more people requires not only a better system of educating kids and connecting them with job opportunities, but a better approach to regional economic growth and development. If you want to raise opportunity and incomes, in other words, you have to increase the number of higher-paying jobs that low-income people have the chance to access. In Greater Baltimore, these jobs can be found in next economy sectors like manufacturing, information technology, bioscience, transportation and logistics, as well as the “clean” economy. In fact, compared to the metro economy as a whole, each of these sectors has a greater share of workers earning a decent living with some training or credential, but without having completed a four-year degree.
A regional economy is a big ship to turn. In the meantime, the education system will keep churning out more kids each year, many of whom will flounder: In 2010, 21 percent of young adults in Baltimore City weren’t attending school, weren’t working, and had no degree past high school. This brings me back to Jonathan’s paper. His research provides more heaping evidence that we need to close educational disparities and ensure that all students leave school with a strong set of basic skills. But we also need to find better ways to engage students in the type of skill-based learning that can help them succeed in a changing economy. In short, Baltimore’s leaders—and metro leaders nationwide—need to focus both on growing a stronger next economy, and ensuring that kids are given the classroom and on-the-job exposure needed to understand and experience the opportunities it presents to them.