Will a bad economy be good for education?
I have never in my lifetime been as worried about the economy as I am now. I've never seen anything like the financial crisis our nation has run into, and it sounds like there is no question we are in a recession. I wonder just how bad it's going to get. Our unemployment rate is headed toward eight percent, and I'm wondering just how high it will go. I believe it hit 11.3 percent in the early 1980s, and I wonder if we're going to top that. During my lifetime, whenever we've had a recession we've gotten out of it through increased deficit spending by our federal government. But our federal deficit was at $400 billion per year before things got really bad--before the $700 billion bailout of our financial institutions, and before talk of a bailout for the automobile industry, and before unemployment started increasing significantly, which of course will cause federal revenues to decrease and spending to increase even more. I'm wondering just how high our deficit can go. Is there any limit to what we can borrow in a year before our whole house of cards comes tumbling down? It looks like we're about to find out. It really scares me. There might, however, be at least one small silver lining inside this very black cloud. It might be good for education.
If you are wondering what the heck I'm talking about, let me explain. I began my teaching career in Mt. Iron which is in the middle of the Iron Range in Minnesota. At that time, the taconite industry was booming, and it continued to boom for the first few years that I worked there. Kids were graduating from high school, and going right to work in the taconite plants or in construction and making very good money. I remember asking one mediocre student, who I thought had some talent, why he didn't try harder. He turned to me and said, "Why should I? In six months I'll be making more money than you are."
About two years after this incident, the floor fell out from under the taconite industry, and Minnesota's Iron Range has never been the same. Minntac, the plant in Mt. Iron cut their workforce of 4,000 down to 1,500. No longer were high school students bragging to their high school teachers that they'd soon be making more money than they were. In fact, there seemed to be a definite improvement in overall effort and performance of our student body. With so few jobs available, and so much unemployment, it was clear to a lot of our kids that if they ever wanted to be able to make a decent living, education was going to matter. No longer could they count on getting out of high school, going right to work in the taconite plant and making good money.
I must confess that I never grasped the full effect of this until I moved here to Warroad in 1989. After one year in Warroad, it was clear to me that I would have to make adjustments because the effort and performance of the students here was so much worse than what I had gotten accustomed to during my last few years on the Iron Range. The factories in this area are non-union, so they don't pay nearly as well as the plants on the Iron Range did, but there has been full employment during the entire time I've lived here. Kids have always assumed there would be jobs waiting for them once they got out of high school no matter how poorly they've performed.
There is another problem for education, at least at the high school level, that goes hand in hand with the full employment this area has had since I've moved here. That is the large number of high school students who work part-time jobs--sometimes more than one--during the school year. I don't know how many times I've had students tell me that they couldn't do a homework assignment because they had to work.
The effects of our faltering economy haven't really hit this area, yet, but I strongly suspect they will. My understanding is that the orders for Marvin Windows, the major employer in our area, are okay up until about the new year, but then they fall off a cliff. Marvin Windows has always handled slow times by having their employees work 32 hour instead of 40 hour weeks, and as far as I know, they've never laid workers off. But right now, I'm very worried about our community. Right now, I'm very worried about our nation. I hope my fears about our economy turn out to be exaggerated. I hope things don't get too bad, and if they do, I hope it doesn't last very long. But if it does, I actually think it might be a good thing for American education.