Do the math: Education is the most effective jobs program. Let's invest in it

Democrats and Republicans agree that creating good jobs for American workers must be a priority for the Trump administration and Congress. But a report issued at the end of December by the White House warns that millions of American jobs could be wiped out by automation in the next 20 years as machines and self-driving vehicles gain new abilities with the help of artificial intelligence.

The White House report reaches the same conclusion that many economists and educators across the partisan divide have called for: “American workers will need to be prepared with the education and training that can help them continue to succeed. Delivering this education and training will require significant investments” from preschool through college.

What is needed now is a bipartisan commitment by all levels of government to invest billions of dollars to improve kindergarten-12th grade schools and make college more accessible and affordable. This would be a powerful economic stimulus that would cut unemployment, create the educated workforce we need and transform lives. Having an educated workforce is how the United States got to be the leading economic engine on the globe and it’s how we can keep the engine roaring.

According to the new White House report, researchers estimate that between 9 and 47 percent of current jobs across the country are threatened over the next decade or two by automation, with most of those jobs “concentrated among lower-paid, lower-skilled, and less-educated workers.”

The facts are clear: for most people, the days when a strong back and strong arms were enough to make the American Dream come true are history. Our most valuable national resource today is the brainpower of our people and we must develop this great resource to the fullest.

These jobs losses continue an unfortunate trend that has left many American workers who lack an education beyond high school unemployed or stuck in low-wage jobs.

Since 2000, U.S. manufacturers have eliminated 5 million jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A 2015 report from Ball State University concluded that “almost 88 percent of job losses in manufacturing in recent years can be attributable to productivity growth” due to automation, rather than outsourcing of jobs to other nations. And automation has advanced since then.

As factory jobs have disappeared, more and more good-paying jobs now require an education beyond high school. That means young people need to prepare for a world where a two-year or four-year college degree is more important than ever.

Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Jason Furman recently wrote: “In 1953, 97 percent of prime-age American men participated in the labor force; today, that figure is down to 88 percent.” That huge drop means the much-vaunted 4.6 percent unemployment rate in November is seriously misleading. There is a sizable contingent of unemployed and underemployed who have stopped looking.

Unfortunately, we have not done enough to provide millions of children – particularly low-income children in severely underfunded schools – with a quality elementary and secondary education and made it possible for them to go to college. And programs for displaced factory workers in community colleges and colleges aren’t big enough and affordable enough.

Tragically, job losses have contributed not just to financial hardship, but to a rising death toll and alcoholism among middle-aged white men and women without an education beyond high school. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Dec. 8 that deaths associated with prescription and illegal opioids rose to 33,091 in 2015, an increase of nearly 5,000 above the 2014 level. This figure included 12,990 deaths from heroin, topping the number of gun homicides in 2015.

A study by Princeton University Professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton concluded that the death rate among white non-Hispanic, middle-aged men and women in the United States rose between 1999 and 2013, after decades of decline. A summary of the Princeton study found that the higher rate “was largely accounted for by increasing death rates from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis,” adding that “those with less education saw the most marked increases.”

While the death rate for middle-aged whites with a bachelor’s degree or higher fell during the study period and the rate for those with some college saw little change, deaths among those without more than a high school diploma rose by a startling 22 percent. Even worse, deaths among this group caused by drugs and alcohol quadrupled and suicides skyrocketed by 81 percent.

Shannon Monnat, an assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University, found in a recent study  that just over 1 million people in the U.S. died from accidental drug overdoses, diseases induced by drugs or alcohol, or suicide over the past decade. She wrote that the rate of these “deaths of despair” was highest in counties that experienced high unemployment and economic distress and had a large working class population. She also found the rate of such deaths “has been substantial enough to significantly increase the overall mortality rate for middle-age non-Hispanic whites, especially those without a college degree living in small cities and rural areas.”

The facts are clear: for most people, the days when a strong back and strong arms were enough to make the American Dream come true are history.

Our most valuable national resource today is the brainpower of our people and we must develop this great resource to the fullest. We can do this by expanding equal educational opportunity for all, because education is the most effective jobs program, the best way to grow our economy, and the key to America’s long-term prosperity.