There are a number of policy changes that would make a big difference in the lives of poor Americans.
Obviously, we need to raise the minimum wage. We also need stronger banking regulations, better and lower-cost day care availability, and improved public education in our poorer neighborhoods, just for starters. These and many other measures would help narrow the widening gap between rich and poor.
But I want to suggest a more sweeping—and admittedly somewhat audacious—policy: a new G.I. Bill.
What would a new G.I. bill entail? As I envision it, high school graduates would enroll in a one-year program that includes civic service and civic education. Upon completion of that year, the government would pay for two years of college. The program would be open to everyone, but targeted at the poor and disadvantaged.
We have massive amounts of research confirming that most Americans—rich or poor—know embarrassingly little about the economic and governmental structures within which they live. For instance, only 36 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government. However, this civics deficit is far more pronounced in poor communities, where civics instruction—along with education generally—is scarce. Because civic knowledge predicts civic participation, one result is that poor folks don’t vote in percentages equal to those of middle-class and wealthy Americans.
Of course, when people don’t vote, their interests aren’t represented.
Poor folks don’t vote in percentages equal to those of middle-class and wealthy Americans.
In the wake of the police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, The New York Times ran a story about efforts to register voters there. The report included some absolutely stunning statements about civic participation. For instance, Shiron Hagens—a 41-year old who was working to register voters—said: “A lot of people just didn’t realize that the people who impact their lives every day are directly elected.”
She further explained: “The prosecutor—he’s elected. People didn’t know that. The City Council—they’re elected. These are the sorts of people who make decisions about hiring police chiefs. People didn’t know.”
Civic participation in poor communities is alarmingly scarce.
The story also repeated the statistics we’ve seen before about Ferguson: a town that is two-thirds African-American with a virtually all-white power structure and a twelve percent voter turnout in the most recent municipal election.
Poverty explains as much of this as race.
Poverty is a reliable predictor of low political participation and efficacy. Giving students from disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity to go to college—an opportunity they may not have otherwise—and making that opportunity conditional on a year of civic learning and civic participation—would do two extremely important things: it would give those students the civic skills they need in order to have a meaningful voice in the democratic process, and it would reduce the nation’s currently unconscionable level of student loan debt.
A new G.I. Bill would give poor students the civic skills needed to have a meaningful voice in democracy.
The need to borrow money in order to afford college keeps many young people from getting the education they need. It keeps others from taking lower-paying jobs with nonprofits and humanitarian organizations after they graduate. Our high level of student loan debt has been identified as a substantial drag on the economy because payment on those loans is preventing many recent graduates from setting up households, buying homes and appliances and even starting families.
As with so many other aspects of contemporary American life, the burdens fall most heavily on the poorest Americans.
A new G.I. bill would go a long way towards making their lives—and our country—better.