On a pleasant Sunday afternoon, in 2010, there was a shocking stabbing and shooting incident. Three people were killed and three were hospitalized. The episode happened in broad daylight in the commercial and recreational center of Boston’s Jamaica Plain community — a youthful, rising, middle class enclave. It caused some of us who were social scientists and educators to focus on the nexus connecting the quality of life, our state’s first world status, and the need to prepare our poorest citizens to participate in wealth creation.
The shootout started in a pizzeria on Centre Street and quickly spilled onto the sidewalk. One of the injured was a bystander out for a walk. She was shoot down, taking a bullet in the leg. Scores of terrified shoppers, residents, and tourists scurried for cover as bullets were flying everywhere. All the perpetrators were young men whose K-12 education did not prepare them for wealth creation. To cope with this situation, they joined or created gangs that supplied the market for illegal commodities. Profiting from this market often requires the gang to control “turf” or street blocks. Violence is generally used to maintain or expand their control.
For over a decade, PWSC’s office and its artist/educators have been located in Jamaica Plain, so we know this community well. Over the years, we have seen thousands of young professionals move here who have the skills the global marketplace is demanding. For many pundits, Jamaica Plain was “proof” that Boston could successfully compete for young professional people with skills the global market wants. After the shooting, this belief was replaced with doubt.
We witnessed concerned city officials trying to downplay what too many residents saw with their own eyes. Like disturbed geese poised to take flight, residents living close to our offices openly voiced their fears that Jamaica Plain may not be where they should be living. But, with the passage of time, belief in the promise of Jamaica Plain reemerged. The flow of hundreds of millions of dollars in business earnings, wages, rents, property values, and tax revenue became secure again.
In 2013, Amy Lord, a young, professional resident in Boston’s upscale South End neighborhood, was beaten and forced to withdraw her money from an ATM machine. Then she was murdered. This happened along with a string of attacks on women in South Boston, another rising neighborhood by the sea. Again, the belief that Boston can successfully compete for people skilled in navigating the global economy was in doubt. And, again, public officials were desperately trying to reassure these people that Boston was safe.
It became clear to our staff that if similar high profile incidents of violence kept happening to white, middleclass residents once every six months, than once every three months, than once a month, than twice a month, the economic promise of Jamaica Plain and other upscale Boston communities will die. The “geese will take flight,” and Boston will economically decline.
Since Boston is the engine that drives the Greater Boston region, the region will decline. Since the Greater Boston region accounts for over 50% of the state’s tax revenue, its decline places Massachusetts’ first world status at-risk. The security of our economic infrastructure and first world status is tightly tied to our K-12 schools’ ability to prepare the bottom 30% to humanely participate in wealth creation.
For most of Massachusetts’ history our state has had many groups of poorly educated citizens. Most of them could not profit from their participation in wealth creation. Yet, this situation never threatened Massachusetts’ first world status. However, in the current global reality, this situation is a significant threat to our state’s first world status. In this globalized world, a local’s high first world status depends on the quality of life it offers. States that sharply reduce the numbers of poorly educated citizens, and prepare them for wealth creation will be the places offering the quality of life that attracts the people who enhance our state’s first world status.
Quality of life is key for the people with the skills to successfully navigate the global marketplace. They, like most of us, are drawn to places that provide safety, excitement, beauty, culture, and good food. They want excellent schools and public infrastructure, and a functioning and fair democratic civil society. Many of them want to be connected to the best in their fields; to their communities; and to interesting, talented, and diverse people from different cultures, age groups, and classes. They want a large selection of arts and entertainment, and they want their environment to be clean, ecologically sustainable, and beautiful. Above all, it is critical that strangers of all classes, races, and ethnicities acknowledge each other during social transactions with genuine care, respect, and goodwill.
Our K-12 schools failure to prepare the bottom 30% to participate in wealth creation increases public behaviors that are disrespectful, low in empathy, aggressive, and lacking in civil and ecological engagement. When these behaviors happen during public and social transactions (shopping, commuting, attending school, and social events, etc.) they create uncertainty and fear. These behaviors induce people who successfully navigate the global marketplace to withdraw themselves and their assets from our state’s economy.
In this global economy, more police and confinement to ghettos and jails will not offer a solution to this problem in Boston any more than it offered a solution in Detroit. Young professionals who can successfully navigate the global marketplace want to live in a city where police are rarely if ever needed, where everyone matters and is not segregated from wealth creation, and the elites are fair and engaged. They see more police, ghettos, and a lack of consensus among the social classes as indicators that the civil society is failing. They conclude that raising a family, traveling to work, college classes, or going out to dinner is too risky, and they become drawn to other locals.
Today, Finland, Denmark, and Switzerland have standards of living that surpass that of the United States, even though they have far fewer natural resources. They also share another thing in common. Unlike the United States, their K-12 schools’ policy is to invest in all their people. Unlike the United States, Finland’s education policy is to invest more educational resources to teach its poorest citizens.
Why does our state’s first world status depends on it attracting and retaining people who successfully navigate the global market and have skills the global market wants? Since the advent of globalization, enterprises that were once statewide and national have become worldwide since 1985. Increasingly, our state, if it is to maintain its economic success, has to have people who navigate this marketplace. These people are essential for maintaining our state’s first world status, because to be in business today is to have global competitors suddenly popping up from everywhere. Companies are finding it harder to survive without having access to people who can successfully position them in this marketplace. Businesses also need people who have skills the global market this market demands. Wherever these two sets of people go, they bring with them their high income, optimism, entrepreneurial skills, civic engagement, and their positive relationship with capital. Banks, financiers, and governments are eager to invest in the areas where they live, work, and play. The demand for goods and services from this group is critical for sustaining the demand required to have a healthy state economy.
The competition for skilled people is not new. What is new is the more demanding standards of the people the global market pays well. They have the resources to have more of a choice about where they want to live, work, play, and invest. What is new is how easy globalization makes it for these people to leave here or come here. Our state must compete globally for these people, for when they leave or do not come here, their capital, talents, and connections go elsewhere. Boston is more prosperous than Detroit, because it has more people the global market wants while Detroit has withered away, because it has lost people the global marketplace wants. A city or state experiences this loss as declining wages, property values, safety, and tax revenue. As quality of life declines, the numbers of people our state needs to maintain its first world status will also decline. These factors make up the nexus connecting the quality of life, our state’s first world status, and the need to prepare our poorest citizens to participate profitably in wealth creation.