Mr. Kennedy Goes to Kansas
On March 18 1968, Robert F. Kennedy spoke extemporaneously about why he wanted to be president to an audience at the University of Kansas. At the time, his words about Vietnam, civil rights, and student protests garnered the most attention, but his thoughts about the gross domestic product are what continue to reverberate today:
“Yet the gross national product* does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play… It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
Looking at the data in UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Education Progress tool, it is clear that while GDP and ratios may help us to compare countries, it obfuscates the daily reality for people around the world as they strive towards education. National balance sheets might give us an idea of how countries value education, how governments and citizens share the burden, but are unable to provide important information about the quality of that burden.
The goal of SDG 4 is to ensure equitable education for all. One way that United Nations measures this is indicator 4.5.4 which measures the percentage of household income devoted to education.
The first measure helps researchers to understand how each nation prioritizes education and whether or not its education efforts are effective. Higher expenditure may indicate a higher emphasis on education. When household expenditure equals or exceeds the governments, it may indicate inadequate government education provision.
The second measure allows researchers to compare countries regardless of the size of their economies and reveals who is really responsible for providing the resources for education.
The UN is primarily concerned with this data in low and middle income countries. When the majority of a countries population lives at the margins, more families and individuals are forced to engage in a problematic calculus: devote money to education as a long-term investment or redirect it toward more pressing needs like food and shelter?
The SDGs assume that governments can remove education’s luxury price tag by increasing their share of education spending relative to households. In a high income country like the US, however, a higher percentage of government spending does not necessarily equate to less hardship. GDP is only a measure of consumption and does not adequately reflect additional challenges citizens face in securing a quality education.
The University of California system is a venerable, well-resourced, and productive institution. World-renowned, the UC system’s 10 campuses employ more than 220,000 people and educate more than 280,000 students. Their resources include Nobel-prize laureates, 5 medical centers, and 3 national laboratories. In 2019, it generated over 40 billion dollars for the California economy. For every $1 of research funding, the system secures an additional $7 in federal and private funds. Despite these tremendous resources, however, graduate students at UC Santa Cruz have been on a wild cat strike since December 9, 2019 in hopes of securing a cost of living adjustment.
According to the UNESCO data, US education expenses are split 80/20 between the government and households. GDP assumes spending falls into discrete, easy-to-categorize expenses, but a closer look at the UCSC students reveals that the lines are blurred. When almost 100% of expenses go towards supporting life as a graduate student, couldn’t all of those expenses be categorized as education expenses?
GDP can only capture what people spend on, not what motivates them to spend or the quality of that spending. It does not tell us anything about students potential financial poverty or “the poverty of satisfaction—purpose and dignity” that accompany the daily struggle to make ends meet.
Economists have often discussed GDP’s shortcomings and have attempted to come up with new measures that better reflect the social and ecological conditions in countries around the world. The Human Development Index, Gross National Happiness, and Genuine Prosperity Indicator are just a few new measures that attempt to reckon with the poverty of satisfaction, but still have not managed to displace GDP.
Although the US spends a tremendous amount on education, it does not mean that it is adequately funding education. Measures like SDG 4.5.4 can misrepresent how advanced a country is when it comes to supporting its students and families. Until we find a more adequate measure that reflects the problems households face, students will continue to struggle against the supposed health of their nation’s balance sheets.
While there may be a long struggle ahead, perhaps one day colleges will “breed men [sic] who riot, who rebel, who attack life with all the youthful vision and vigor” because of their policies, not in response to them. In the meantime, as RFK quoted William Allen White “the more riots that come out of our college campuses, the better the world for tomorrow.”
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