Jennifer Berkshire interviews Harvey Kantor, author of a recent book that explains why some people have substituted education as the answer to poverty instead of job-creation or income transfers.

I happen to believe that education is crucial for everyone, and especially for those who live in poverty. But education alone is not enough.

Berkshire cites an article by David Leonhardt of the New York Times, who wrote last May that education was the most powerful force for reducing poverty and raising living standards. Leonhardt dismisses vouchers but admires charters, without acknowledging their penchant for cherrypicking or noting how many charters are failures, even by their own goals.

This claim is a fixture in the corporate reform world. They would like the public to believe that charter schools can raise test scores and thereby solve the problems of poverty. Berkshire might have also cited Wendy Kopp, who has said and written many times that we don’t have to fix poverty first, we have to fix the schools. (Of course, no one ever actually said that “we have to ‘fix’ poverty before we can ‘fix’ the schools, other than Kopp herself.) This is an offer that corporate leaders love, because throwing money at TFA and charter schools is a lot more attractive than raising corporate and individual tax rates. (The marginal tax rate during the Eisenhower administration was 91%. Today it is in the high 30s.)

Berkshire and Kantor discuss this strange belief that education, important as it is, can raise living standards without other major changes in social policy.

She writes:

Unions are weak. Wage growth is non-existent. Plutocrats have all the power. And yet the myth that education is all we need to finally “fix” poverty persists. AlterNet education editor Jennifer Berkshire talks with historian Harvey Kantor about how the US gave up on the idea of responding to poverty directly, instead making public schools the answer to poverty. Hint: it all starts in the 1960’s with the advent of the Great Society programs. Fast forward to the present and our belief that education can reduce poverty and narrow the nation’s yawning inequality chasm is stronger than ever. And yet our education arms race, argues Kantor, is actually making income inequality worse.

Jennifer Berkshire: I read in the New York Times recently that education is the most powerful force for *reducing poverty and lifting middle-class living standards.* It’s a classic example of what you describe in this excellent history as *educationalizing the welfare state.*

Harvey Kantor: Education hasn’t always been seen as the solution to social and economic problems in the US. During the New Deal, you had aggressive interventions in providing for economic security and redistribution; education was seen as peripheral. But by the time you get to the Great Society programs of the 1960’s, education and human capital development had moved to the very center. My colleague Robert Lowe and I started trying to think about how that happened and what the consequences were for the way social policy developed in the US from the 1960’s through No Child Left Behind. How is it that there is so much policy making and ideological talk around education and so little around other kinds of anti-poverty and equalizing policies? We also wanted to try to understand how it was that education came to shoulder so much of the burden for responding to poverty within the context of cutbacks in the welfare state.

JB: You argue that by making education THE fix for poverty, we’ve ended up fueling disappointment with our public schools, a disillusionment that is essentially misplaced. Explain.

HK: One of the consequences of making education so central to social policy has been that we’ve ended up taking the pressure off of the state for the kinds of policies that would be more effective at addressing poverty and economic inequality. Instead we’re asking education to do things it can’t possibly do. The result has been increasing support for the kinds of market-oriented policies that make inequality worse.

If we really want to address issues of inequality and economic insecurity, there are a lot of other policies that we have to pursue besides or at least in addition to education policies, and that part of the debate has been totally lost. Raising the minimum wage, or providing a guaranteed income, which the last time we talked seriously about that was in the late 1960’s, increasing workers’ bargaining power, making tax policies more progressive—things like that are going to be much more effective at addressing inequality and economic security than education policies. That argument is often taken to mean, *schools can’t do anything unless we address poverty first.* But that’s not what we were trying to say.