Adult Education and Economic Inequality

AEFL Week Logo“America’s economy and the structure of the job market have changed significantly over the past couple decades in ways that have hurt working poor families. For low-income workers, real wages have fallen, the social safety net is fraying, and staying afloat financially is harder than ever. Economic inequality is at levels not seen since just before the Great Depression of the early 20th century. The economic situation is not likely to reverse itself on its own.” – Choitz and Conway in The Future of Work for Low-Income Workers and Families Policy Brief (2015), The Working Poor Families Project

The staggering economic inequality in the United States affects adult education and adult learners directly and in multiple ways.  That is why we at World Education commemorate the Adult Education and Family Literacy Week this year by turning our focus on this topic in this blog series.

We need to bust the myth that education and training alone are the solution to increased economic mobility while also understanding that education and training do matter.  They’re just not enough.  The wages of the poorest and middle class workers have not kept up with inflation.  Low-wage workers took home 5% less in 2013 than in 1979, while those with very high wages had a 41% increase in their wages, adjusted for inflation. “The hard truth is that millions of tomorrow’s workers will have no realistic option except to make do the best they can, struggling each day not for mobility but simply stability,” state Conway and Dawson in Raise the Floor and Build Ladders: Workforce Strategies Supporting Mobility and Stability

As a rule, ABE and ESL learners work in low-wage jobs, often with unpredictable schedules, few benefits, and limited job advancement possibilities.  That is often why they have decided to enroll in adult education, to improve their economic security.  They are up against great odds on the road to completing their high school degree, a training program, or college.  For some adult learners, juggling constantly changing work schedules and family responsibilities and finding reliable transportation to get to school is just too much. Others give up because they cannot afford the actual and opportunity cost of college or training.  Erratic work scheduling alone wreaks havoc not only on people’s anticipated income but also on child care arrangements and the ability to attend classes.

Many studies show that adult learners increase their odds of securing a good job with every degree and certificate.  If we, as adult educators, really want to increase students’ chances of getting through adult education and training or college and landing a decent job, there is yet more we need to do in addition to providing high quality education and training programs.  While we provide ever more workforce preparation activities and help people get on a career pathway, we also need to support students to see themselves as agents of their own destiny, as people who can affect their own workplaces and join broader advocacy efforts.

As Conway and Dawson write in their insightful paper, Restore the Promise of Work, a career ladder is not secure unless it rests on a stable ground.   We need to join forces with other advocates and adult learners to push for increased minimum wage, guaranteed sick leave, and other policies that provide a modicum of economic stability.  Minimum wage, for example, is on the ballot in many states and cities this November, as Sandy Goodman writes in an upcoming blog.  As teachers and practitioners in the field, why not create lessons around these ballot questions, so that our students can develop their opinions and take action if they wish?

We could also follow the example of Instituto del Progreso Latino’s Manufacturing Works program in Chicago that rates employers based on worker compensation and working conditions and that places students in jobs accordingly. We can educate ourselves and our students about how to prevent wage theft, which is rampant and affects our students and their families. And we can model agency by advocating for better working conditions within our own field of adult education! (See our blog posting later this week called “Making a Living in Adult Education?”)

The fact is that for every adult who manages to hang on and graduate and land a decent job, there are hundreds who will be stuck in low-wage jobs. More than one half (56%) of all new jobs over the next decade will be low-wage jobs. That’s 8.8 million jobs in retail sales, food preparation and service, child care, landscaping, home health, and security.[i]  These jobs should meet minimum standards for dignified work, i.e., they should pay enough so that workers can provide food and shelter for themselves and their families, receive decent benefits, and not have to worry about being fired due to illness. There is something wrong with our economic policies when 52% of fast food workers must rely on food stamps and other forms of public assistance, most of them working full-time.

Our complementary Change Agent lesson packets offer teaching resources.  One article (in Lesson Packet #9), for example, details how billionaires’ secretaries pay a higher effective tax rate than they do themselves, and how corporations’ share of the federal tax contributions has plummeted over the last decades. And Lesson Packet #10 highlights efforts many of our students are already part of to improve working conditions.

When we educate, train, integrate, and try to accelerate pathways to good jobs, we should keep in mind the macro-economic policies that contribute to inequality, and we should do what we can to change those policies.  What are the ways we in adult education can integrate advocacy into our teaching so that — in concert with students, with others in the field, and with a wide array of advocates – we ensure the strongest possible voices will be raised for equity?

During the coming week, keep an eye out for more blog posts that help explore this question.


[i] Conway, M. & S. Dawson. (2016) Raise the Floor and Build Ladders: Workforce Strategies Supporting Mobility and Stability
https://www.aspeninstitute.org/publications/raise-the-floor-and-build-ladders-workforce-strategies-supporting-mobility-and-stability/

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Silja Kallenbach

Silja Kallenbach

Silja is the Vice President of World Education, Inc. where she oversees the operations of WEI’s U.S. Division. Silja has 34 years of experience in adult education as administrator, professional development provider, program developer, researcher, and teacher. Silja is the recipient of the 2014 national award for Promoting Literacy Nationally and Internationally, issued by the Commission on Adult Basic Education.