Before I had my own blog, I shared a blog called “Bridging Differences” with Deborah Meier, hosted by Education Week. We had a great run of five years, and then I started this blog. Since then, Deborah has had exchanges with various conservative thinkers.

Currently, she is trying to “bridge differences” with Michael Petrilli of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute. In this post, Mike argues that the best way to end poverty is to persuade young people to get married and wait to have children until they are able to take care of them financially. Since no one knows how to do that, he maintains that the best cure for poverty is “great” schools.

He suggests that those “on the left” have given up on social mobility. I am not sure whether he believes that schools–rightly organized–will facilitate social mobility or will end poverty, as he seems to use the terms interchangeably, at one point referring to the schools as “the great equalizer,” at other times suggesting that it is upward mobility (for some) that he expects schools to promote. Mike makes clear that he opposes raising the minimum wage or increasing income transfers. So that leaves schools with the burden of either ending poverty or increasing social mobility, whatever, since nothing else can do it, in his view.

Of course, the schools have always provided a path to upward social mobility for some, but the problem is that many millions of children and families are stuck in poverty. It seems unlikely that the schools alone can push that large number down. No matter how many “No Excuses” charter schools open, there will still be many millions trapped at the bottom, while a huge share of the national income flows to the top 1% and the top 5%.

Mike’s answer: Fix the schools!

My answer: Improve every school, open health clinics attached to schools, provide free pre-natal care to all women who cannot afford it, make pre-K universal, make sure that schools serving the poorest kids have the resources for small classes, social workers, psychologists, librarians, the arts, and a full curriculum, just like the kids in affluent suburbs. And change the tax structure so that income inequality is reduced.

I might also note that many young people who have graduated college now find themselves unable to get a good job because so many middle-class jobs were outsourced by our corporate leaders. So you will find college graduates working at minimum wage–or slightly above it–in Starbucks or selling iPads or working in jobs that don’t require a college diploma.

I look forward to Deborah’s answer.

In the meanwhile, here are some interesting comments:

Leo Casey of the American Federation of Teachers wrote as follows:

If you are serious about reducing, let alone eliminating, poverty, there is a historical record that needs to be addressed. From the New Deal to through the 1970s income inequality and poverty in America were reduced, with two very significant periods of change – the New Deal, especially Social Security, reduced immensely the numbers of elderly people living in poverty, and the Great Society reduced the numbers of mothers and children living in poverty. The rate of poverty was cut almost in half between 1960 (from about 22% to 11%) and the beginning off the Reagan years. With the Reagan years, poverty climbs once again (now hovers around 15%). Of course, these are aggregate numbers – there are many more children living in poverty (1 in 4) than adults. This is also related to general income equality: there is a period of the reduction of income equality, beginning with the New Deal and extending through the 1970s, followed by a great increase in income inequality beginning in the 1970s and extending to the current period. Timothy Noah’s The Great Divide has a pretty comprehensive analysis of these trends. Two factors are particularly important: the effects of ‘the race to the bottom’ initiated by economic globalization, in which unionized jobs in industry were exported abroad to low wage, authoritarian nations such as China where workers could not form independent unions to improve their pay and working conditions, and the related decimation of industrial unions that supported middle class jobs in the United States.

My old mentor and colleague, Michael Harrington, who had a few things to say about poverty {-; never tired of saying that the best anti-poverty program was a job.

Debbie’s pessimism, if I read her correctly, is whether there is a political will to reduce poverty and income inequality in the United States. There is no great secret on how to do it; the question is whether there is a political will to address a problem that falls so heavily on the backs of women and children, particularly of color.