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No B.A., No J.O.B: Non-College Workers Keep Getting Whacked by Downturn

Joseph Hines

A Georgetown Public Policy Institute report shows the degree to which the Great Recession has exacerbated the education gap. Not only did workers without a college degree lose “nearly four out of five jobs during the recession,” but the least-educated workers, those without high school degrees, have continued to lose jobs during the recovery.

For instance, construction workers -- who typically haven't gone to college -- have the highest unemployment rate of any group, over 12 percent, and last month this was the only part of the private sector that actually shed jobs. 

As evident from the figure below, not only have the gains from the current recovery gone to educated workers, nearly all the unemployment gains for the past twenty years have gone to workers with an Associates degree or higher.


In addition, the report also shows that the college premium, the difference in wages between college educated workers and the rest, has escalated since 1990. The authors find that "workers with a Bachelor's degree earned 84 percent more over a lifetime than high school graduates in 2009. Two decades ago, the lifetime premium was only 75 percent."

Nowhere are these national trends more evident than in our largest and most unequal state. This morning, Scott Thrum and Pui-Wing Tam, for the Wall Street Journal, reported on California’s inequitable recovery. Although California adds jobs faster than rest of the country, these jobs mirror the national trend of leaving those without college-degrees behind.

The uneven recovery of Silicon Valley reflects divisions across California. Areas with high-tech clusters, such as Orange County, south of Los Angeles, are adding jobs at a healthy pace. But much of California, including Los Angeles County, lags behind. The state's 10.7% unemployment rate is higher than all but two other states. Unemployment tops 10% in 39 of the state's 58 counties.

California’s Gini coefficient, the most commonly used measure of income inequality, has risen to 47% during the recession. That’s comparable to Rwanda. For comparison, the average for high-income countries is 30%

Not only does the education gap create greater inequality, its also made government less able to pursue appropriate countermeasures. With state tax revenue down, the cost to attend a University of California school has tripled over the last decade, as the state cut funding to balance its budget. Similarly, only flush localities like Silicon Valley are spending any money to repair their roads or bridges. 

These trends aren’t going to reverse themselves. Union jobs won’t come flooding back. We need aggressive, clear-sighted public policy that works on the causes and symptoms of inequality. To start, there should be federal investment in infrastructure now. Populous states like California have suffered the brunt of federal austerity. It's past time that is rectified. 

Going forward, it’s imperative that we prioritize low-income access to higher education. Federal programs should pick up the slack where states cannot. If California continues to cut educational funding, its abhorrent inequality will only worsen in the coming decades. Similarly, if we cut federal higher ed programs like Pell Grants, we’ll only escalate the national college premium and the pernicious inequality that accompanies it.