Research shows education, full-time employment can overcome poverty

Research shows education, full-time employment can overcome poverty

The city of Chicago’s poverty rate is 17%. The Brookings Institution’s “success sequence” shows what city and state leaders need to focus on if we want to provide a pathway to prosperity.

Poverty continues to plague our country. Fortunately, research shows there’s a proven way to overcome it.

While the overall poverty rate in America is 11.5%, people who graduate high school, secure full-time employment, get married, then have kids – in this order – have a poverty rate of only 2%.

This “success sequence,” made prominent by Brookings Institution researchers Ron Haskins and Isabell Sawhill, has been praised across the ideological spectrum as a means to empower the poor through social mobility. These endorsements include Brookings Institution research and a recent report from the Illinois Policy Institute on macro-solutions to poverty in Chicago.

Chicago has work to do on the various components of this sequence, especially when it comes to education and work.

A high-quality education is the first, necessary step on the path to prosperity. With every level of educational attainment, both lifetime and median earnings increase. In Chicago in particular, education and poverty are closely intertwined. The poverty rate among Chicagoans aged 25 and older who did not complete high school was 26.5% in 2022. The poverty rate among those with some college experience was 15.8%, and 6.5% among those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

The 2023 Illinois Report Card demonstrates the extent to which poorly performing schools and teachers reduce the likelihood of the city’s children achieving prosperity by following the success sequence. Math and reading proficiency among Chicago Public Schools students increased in 2023 from the previous two years, but remained low at 17.5% and 25.9%. This indicates the vast majority of Chicago’s children are ill-equipped to succeed. These children are ill-served by the educational system that should be devoted to ensuring they have the skills required to advance in life.

Chronic absenteeism of 39.8% and poor teacher quality further contribute to an inequitable situation in which Black and low-income Chicago students are particularly disadvantaged. Despite these poor scores, the CPS graduation rate in 2023 was 83%. Given these statistics, it is unsurprising that poverty rates are high among Chicagoans without a high school diploma or more. Graduates do not have the skills that the diploma is meant to reflect.

After all, as the Urban Institute shows, those who have a high school diploma have higher earning potential than those who do not. In Chicago, however, there are 53,000 people with at least a bachelor’s degree living in poverty. Research shows only 31% of Americans actually need a college degree or higher for their jobs.

Maintaining a stable job is the second step on the success sequence. The data shows unequivocally that work works in Chicago. In Chicago, employment status is highly correlated with socioeconomic success. The poverty rate among Chicagoans aged 16 years and older who worked full time was only 2.3 percent in 2022. Meanwhile, the poverty rate among those who were unemployed was 39.7 percent in 2022.

The data unambiguously demonstrates employment is negatively correlated with poverty, but too many Chicagoans are unable to secure full-time employment that can help them safeguard their future. The absolute number of unemployed people has declined in the Chicago-Naperville-Arlington Heights metropolitan statistical area in recent months, but it remains high at 164,500 people. In some neighborhoods of Chicago, such as West Englewood, the unemployment rate among people aged 16 years and older is 35.9%.

Family formation, the third step on the success sequence, is also important because family stability and structure have profound impacts on economic and social mobility. In her book, “The Two Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind,” Brookings Institution researcher Melissa Kearney makes an economic case for marriage. She demonstrates how, according to the available data, children who grow up in a household with two married parents enjoy an advantage in economic opportunity over those who do not. That marriage gap drives inequality by making it more difficult for Chicago children to follow the success sequence. In Chicago, only 6% of married-couple families had an income below poverty level in the past 12 months compared to 27% of single-mother families.

Unstable relationships can keep future generations from advancing. They are closely linked to educational attainment and marriage. Less educated, unmarried parents have more unstable relationships and higher divorce rates. These unstable relationships can, in turn, inhibit children’s ability to follow the success sequence.

There are concrete steps Chicago and Illinois policymakers can take to promote the success sequence, especially with regard to education and employment.

To improve educational quality and outcomes, state and local policymakers can give Chicago parents more choice within the public school system by loosening restrictions on charter schools and pursuing open enrollment policies. They can also reinstate school choice through the Invest in Kids Act.

Policymakers can promote stable employment by solving Chicago’s “skills gap.” Reorienting the education system from college preparation to career training can also promote secure employment. Policymakers can shift from an inefficient degree-first model towards a career-first model that emphasizes apprenticeships and other educational opportunities that empower people by getting them ready for careers.

Promoting the success sequence will help families and give children better futures, something all Chicagoans deserve.

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