GUEST COMMENTARY: Education helps propel people out of poverty

2012-12-23T00:00:00Z GUEST COMMENTARY: Education helps propel people out of povertyBy J. Guadalupe Valtierra
December 23, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Addressing poverty issues is a complex task. There is no easy answer for how to bring people out of poverty and, more important, how to keep them from dropping back in.

According to An Atlas of Poverty in America, $35,000 is a basic-needs annual budget for a U.S. family of four (two adults, two children). We all know there are families earning below that in every community in Northwest Indiana. How long will they continue in poverty? We don’t know. Economists say that poor families become trapped in poverty for at least three generations.

There are many factors that lead to poverty. However, education offers one of the best opportunities for earning a higher income and provides for a wider variability in income.

Economic development studies consistently show that census blocks in cities with very low median education also tend to have very low median incomes. Of course, the opposite is also true of those census blocks with higher median education levels. Those income levels tend to be both higher and more varied. It is often educational attainment that helps to break generational cycles of poverty.

Many factors, however, impact employability: economic conditions, the local labor market and the type of degree or training a person possesses. Some will argue that earning a degree or learning a trade is not a guarantee that a person will not be in poverty. We have all heard stories about the Ph.D. holder who cannot find a job in his or her field and is working at a minimum wage job, barely surviving. However, in the long run the person and the community will benefit from an educated and skilled workforce.

Businesses will tell you they seek out communities where there are skilled and educated workers already in place. It takes fewer training dollars on the part of the company to prepare them for work, they are often more ready to take on job-related responsibilities, and they are easier to promote and help the company succeed. By locating in a community with a ready-to-work population, the company will help the community to increase the median income levels, and other companies will also seek to locate within that community.

The mismatch of skills to jobs available in a given community or region is said to be a huge driver of poverty. We shouldn't stop encouraging our population to earn degrees or obtain skills. In fact, we need to encourage people to obtain those degrees and skills that will have a payoff in the workforce. Researching careers and jobs that have the potential for growth before deciding to spend money on an education program will improve the chances to provide for greater income stability.

While higher educational attainment levels might not guarantee a six-figure income, we do know that the more education a person has, the better the chance he or she will have the tools needed to increase their income and less likely languish in poverty. And that can significantly impact the overall quality of our lives.

J. Guadalupe Valtierra is chancellor of Ivy Tech Community College Northwest. The opinion expressed in this column is the writer's and not necessarily that of The Times.

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