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Does employment move individuals out of poverty?

I invite you to read the New York Times article, Americans Want to Believe Jobs Are the Solution to Poverty. They're Not and share your thoughts and insights into the American Poverty crisis. As a developed nation, we have the highest rate of childhood poverty, and this is on the increase as the Great Recession moved people from the middle class into low class incomes. 

Many of our programs are seeing declining enrollment as we experience a full employment economy. Our students are working - often long hours at a lower wage, or multiple jobs in this 'gig economy".  

How do we move students up the economic ladder? And what does the scarcity mindset and fault tolerance have to do with student success?  (Check out a prior LINCS discussion on these concepts)

I realize these are very broad concepts, but I am interested in your thoughts about the article, and the overall concepts as they relate to adult education. 

Kathy Tracey


greneau's picture

In my many years as an Adult Education Literacy Instructor, I have read many articles that pose this very same question. As I attended many  Adult Ed. conferences, in which we as instructors were challenged to come up with creative means to keep students engaged and make lessons relevant, in order to promote retention and completion, I would often question why. Studies show that academic achievement leads to higher wages. I do not depute this. However, like many of you who are reading my comments, I have a master's degree and had taught Adult Literacy for eleven years...part-time as a contractual employee who did not qualify for benefits.

Although my rate of pay was more than living wage, the hours I was limited to working could not support me and certainly not my family. Many of my colleagues pieced together  full-time work by working at numerous education programs, still with no benefits. How can we continue to promote the notion that if our student work hard, continue to pursue credentials and post-secondary education, that they will earn the ability to live the "American Dream"?

Last Fall, I had to finally admit, that I could no longer earn a living based on my heart felt desire to help other's improve their economic circumstances . I needed to have a retirement plan and health benefits, so I resigned. I now work for the state as a grant manager for the adult education programs I once worked at. I still believe that I can make a difference, by helping these programs improve the quality of service they deliver. However, I still wonder if we are truly delivering a message of hope or simply hoping the message we deliver is true. 

David J. Rosen's picture
One hundred

Hello Grayla,

As you may know, 80% of the nation's adult basic skills paid teaching workforce is part-time. From my experience they represent the following categories of adult basic skills workers: 1) K-12 teachers who want the extra income and/or enjoy working with adults; 2) retired teachers, largely from K-12, who enjoy working with adults and don't mind the additional income; 3) younger teachers who would like to be working full-time, with family-sustaining salaries, but who are currently working two, three, or four part-time adult basic skills -- especially ESL/ESOL -- jobs. People in this category often reluctantly move to full-time positions in K-12 or in community colleges or to state level positions with salaries, benefits and often some security. I remember a conversation I had with a devoted part-time ESL teacher in Boston many years ago. She got sick, had no health benefits, went to the emergency room at Boston City Hospital. The full-time Intake worker, who had full health benefits, was one of her ESL students. The difference in their circumstances, she concluded, was that the hospital workers had a strong labor union; she pointed out, quite rightly, that most adult basic skills teachers have no labor union.

I don't think those of us who work in adult basic skills should tell students they will be able to live the "American Dream", for example to own their own home or a car, or send their kids to good schools, although a few will. We do need to tell them if they don't complete high school or get an equivalency AND go on to at least one year of community college, their chances of doing better are slim; that if they do, their chances are much better. The Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning (LSAL) found that adult basic skills learners who had a 100 hours or more of instruction on average, after at least five years (when many presumably got their h.s. equivalency and finished at least a year of community college) earned on average $10,000 per year more than those who didn't and hadn't completed high school. That's good news, but someone who is earning $15,000 a year now, who has a family, is a single parent and works hard to complete a h.s. equivalency and a year or two of community college and as a result then earns $25,000 may be less poor, but probably not at the level of family self sufficiency. If the person has a spouse or household companion earning $25,000 and perhaps they have only one child, in some communities in the U.S. that approaches a family-sustaining income, but is still far from what used to be described as "middle class" and may not lead to home ownership, although it may enable one or two used cars in the family, often needed to get to work.

Where does this picture leave us? How can teachers change this? One obvious answer is to join with others who are working for changes in our society in which the wages for low-income people are higher. Another is to be sure that students have an accurate picture of what it will take to eventually earn a family sustaining wage or salary, an accurate picture of a career pathway, and what resources might be available to them to get on and stay on a career pathway. Public resources not only for scholarships but for childcare, transportation assistance, help with health emergencies, help with care for elderly parents, food stamps, and other assistance, seem to be in danger now, and more teachers and other advocates have become vocal advocates for them. Without them, career pathways may be a useful concept for anyone with resources but not for many adults and young people who are poor, including working poor.

Thanks for "ground truthing" (a military term referring to not just relying on ground images taken from the air, but adding essential information from the ground level) this reality for many of the students we serve.

David J. Rosen



Kathy_Tracey's picture
One hundred

Hi all, 

I started another thread about Teaching in America based on this very conversation. We see teachers working multiple jobs in this 'gig' economy in order to meet some level of economic sustainability. So, if our role is to help our students move forward through career pathways, how do we do that when we are in the same trenches? I'd love to continue this discussion and hear your stories.

Kathy Tracey

Jennifer Herr's picture

I think as an adult educator it is important to remind students that a High School diploma is not enough.  It is not the end of their education journey if they want to get out of poverty!  They need college or job training skills.  I think it is also important to remind them that a college degree does not guarantee a high paying job.  We see so many today working in a factory or other job that has nothing to do with their college degree.  Does the college degree help you get a job absolutely but not necessarily a high pay job that gets you above the poverty line.   Students need to be reminded to pick a college degree path that has job opening in their community, a job that is in demand.    I feel like the trades is where the jobs and money is today.  College is not always the answer to getting out of poverty.

Myself for example graduated from Purdue University in 2009 and did not land myself a teaching job until 2015 because there just wasn't enough teaching jobs to go around.  Now schools can't fill all the teaching jobs.  

Michael Cruse's picture
One hundred

The Expanding Opportunities Through Middle-Skills Education report makes the following research-based statements:  

  • Middle-skills education can yield highly valuable outcomes for students, ushering them into higher-paying careers often with substantially lower debt burdens than four-year alternatives.6  
  • Middle-skills jobs make up one-third of all jobs in the United States, have an average annual salary of more than $45,000, and are projected to remain in demand in the future.7
  • More than a third of the top 30 fastest growing occupations are middle-skills occupations.
  • Moreover, middle-skills jobs comprise a diverse set of occupations, spanning all industries, including health care workers, legal assistants, police officers and engineering technicians.10 Many are in high-growth industries, such as health care and clean energy.   

The question in my mind is, are we advising enough younger adult learners to consider these middle-skill careers, or are we defaulting to Associate's level and Bachelor's degrees for these younger learners?  Often times, I fear that we are still missing the opportunity to advise younger learners about these programs out of a stigma about how our society views white and blue collar professions.  I also see this as a concern when addressing educational access and equity between learners of different races and economic backgrounds.  What are the obstacles you experience, if any, in advising different populations of learners about middle-skill careers?

Mike Cruse

Career Pathways Moderator