Transforming nations: education as an antidote to gender inequality and poverty

Transforming nations:  education as an antidote to gender inequality and poverty

Joe Colihan

Anthony Schulzetenberg


The statistics are sobering.  As of 2011, an estimated one billion people (roughly one of  seven) live in extreme poverty, with less than $1.25 USD per day to live on. 

One major factor leading to the perpetuation of poverty across the world is gender inequality; it is a powerful force holding societies back from potential progress.  As discussed in a USAID report from September 2015, women often suffer the greater brunt of poverty due to factors that “reduce their ability to participate fully in the economy and to reap the benefits of growth.”  These factors include taking on a greater burden of unpaid work, having fewer assets, being exposed to gender-based violence, and being more likely to be forced into early marriages.  As reported here in When Employees Discuss Pay, gender inequality exists in the US, with the 80% wage gap only being partially explainable by “legitimate factors” like seniority.

Nevertheless, research points to education as one key antidote.  The USAID report also indicates that women spend more of the income they control toward the benefit of their children, improving the prospects for future generations by raising standards around nutrition, health, and education.  As reported by Paul Solman in 2018, two-thirds of people across the global who are illiterate are women, showing a gross injustice in equal access to education.  As dire as that sounds, the potential upside is transformative. 

As a follow-up to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Surjit Bhalla published The New Wealth of Nations, arguing that the spread of education has greatly helped reduce poverty in the past 100 years, transforming many nations while reducing inequality.  At the heart of the matter are reactions toward children.  One factor beyond the obvious alleviation of suppression follows.  As more women become educated, they discriminate against their daughters less, and start to see them as equally capable, reinforcing the importance of education in a cycle that can lift families out of poverty.  Bhalla describes greater growth in less-developed countries.  While developed countries like the US have seen the value of their educations stagnate with wages for those with a high-school diploma declining 10-25% in the past 25 years and virtually flat (+0.5%) for those with college degrees or higher, developing nations that decide to provide equal access to education for boys and girls have seen remarkable progress.  Indeed, as reported in the USAID research, countries with greater gender inequality have higher poverty rates, but improving education for women reduces that inequality and reduces poverty.

Could more and better education be an antidote to poverty and inequality in the US?  Consider this quote from Warren Buffett.  “It’s easy to solve the problems of public education in America.  All you have to do is outlaw private schools and assign every child to public school by lottery.”  Think about it, if every CEO, diplomat, congressman’s child was randomly assigned to a DCPS – it would change immediately!”  While a provocative statement, his point is that funding for public education has eroded as the wealthy have opted out of the system in favor of private schools.  If education can transform nations by reducing gender inequality and lifting families out of poverty, it would seem to follow that making quality, public education widely accessible is a wise investment in our future.  After all, an educated populous and a free press make democracy possible. 



Bhalla, S.  (2017).  The New Wealth of Nations.  Simon & Shuster, S&S India. 

Buffett, W.  (2016).

Colihan, J.  (2018).  When employees discuss pay. 

Solman, P.  (2018).  Why the new global wealth of educated women spurs backlash.

USAID (Sep. 2015).  Gender and extreme poverty. 


Joe Colihan