I became an economist because I wanted to understand the causes of poverty and to help figure out what we could do about it. Growing up in Jamaica, I saw people who worked hard continue to live in extreme poverty. How is this possible?
As an economist, I learned about something called the marginal product. For workers, this is basically asking how much extra stuff they can make by working another hour, for example. What an employer is willing to pay their worker is NOT solely based on the marginal product or how hard you work. It is also based on the value of the thing the worker is producing. By value, I mean what what people pay for the product. An artist can paint many pictures and not make a lot of money, whereas a different artist can paint one picture and sell it for a far greater sum. To escape poverty, people need to work hard at doing something valuable.
The value of a product or service in a market economy is based on what economists call Supply and Demand. When the amount people want to buy is more than the amount people want to sell, the value of the product or service increases. In the Americas, the demand for people with math-based skills exceeds the supply of such people. In particular, a shortage of fully-qualified math teachers in the United States has led to significant recruitment from Jamaica's education system. With the declining trend in teaching majors in the US, Jamaica can expect the attrition of its own math teachers to worsen in the coming years.
This problem presents people who are living in poverty with a tremendous opportunity. With expected Demand exceeding expected Supply, wages of math teachers (and other math-based professions) should increase in the US. The Reggae Math Foundation team believes that many Jamaican children who are not learning math now are VERY capable of learning if given the correct support. Even better, learning math will give these students a chance to pursue careers highly valued by society values, fueling opportunity to move out of extreme poverty.
There is a second opportunity here. It is for people, who want to help address issues such as poverty, crime, to support education. By supporting education, we create more people who can help solve the world's problems, and therefore ultimately, we help ourselves.
Dr. Linda Bailey-McWeeney is the Executive Director of Reggae Math Foundation, an economist, and an educator. She has been an Assistant Professor at Baruch College, City University of New York and an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Economics at College of Staten Island, City University of New York, and Wagner College. She has a Ph.D. in Economics from Michigan State University.