If you look at the incomes of individual workers, that seems a logical inference. Among employed L.A. city residents, those with college degrees have median annual incomes of $57,000, the Roundtable study says, while those who haven’t finished high school have yearly incomes of $19,000. On an individual level, and in aggregate as well, education can only help.
But how much? Is it still true, as Bill Clinton argued during his 1992 campaign for president, that what you earn depends on what you learn? Or has the brave-new-world economy decoupled even learning and earning? According to an article this spring in Foreign Affairs by Alan Blinder, the Princeton economist whom Clinton appointed to the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors, the number of American jobs that can be performed abroad far more cheaply will in several years total somewhere between 42 million and 56 million. That includes virtually all manufacturing jobs, but it also includes the jobs of many highly educated professionals that, through the miracle of electronic communications, can be performed by Chinese and Indian professionals who work a lot cheaper. (Routine legal contracts, Blinder writes, can be drafted in Delhi, though legal jobs requiring personal contact — divorce lawyers, for instance — will stay here. Now, there’s a vision for our economic future.)
With the coming of a global white-collar labor market to rival the blue-collar wave that hit auto assembly, to what degree will education really be the magic bullet? In 2002, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 26.9 percent of all jobs in the U.S. required a college degree. In 2012, the bureau estimates, that figure will rise to 27.9 percent — a whopping 1 percent increase.
In truth, there’s not a political tendency anywhere on the planet that knows how to preserve the middle-class character of advanced economies in the face of globalization — and certainly not in the U.S., where companies, more than in any other nation, reflexively seek to boost profits by doing anything they can to reduce labor costs. None of this exactly negates the idea that education is a prerequisite for upward mobility; it just limits the degree of broad upward mobility that’s possible. It certainly doesn’t diminish the imperative for better schools. L.A. clearly needs them. It just needs a whole lot — and it’s hard to say what, exactly — else.