Investing in the Future

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On Tuesday, Nov. 6, the country re-elected Barack Obama President of the United States of America. What was remarkable about this election was the coalition of young people, women, African-Americans, and Latinos who came out in record numbers to ensure the person serving in the White House for the next four years understands their concerns and will fight to protect the interests of all Americans, not just a privileged few. Now, the president embarks on the first order of business in his second term — negotiating with Congress over expiring tax provisions and the automatic spending cuts that will take effect in January 2013 unless the White House and Congress reach an alternative agreement. The president must act on behalf of the coalition that provided his margin of victory, not simply because they supported him in the election; but because this coalition represents the future of our nation.

The federal budget that results from these negotiations must ensure our next generation has the opportunities and tools it needs to move the country forward. That means there must be funding for education, for health care, for nutrition programs — for all the things that make it possible for every young person to excel. Our schools and colleges have been the engines of our national success. The critical thinking, innovation, and creativity that come with a high-quality education are factors that, for decades, have made the United States a great economic power. And as the world grows more complex, we need these institutions to do more for our young people, not less.

Despite the many successes of our education system, we know that there have been great failures, too. Most critically, low-income students and students of color have for too long gotten too little of what matters most for academic success and success later in their lives. That means we’ve squandered too much potential already. And that doesn’t just hurt those students, it hurts our nation as a whole. As the make-up of our schools and our nation becomes increasingly brown and black, the harm that inequitable education policies, practices, and funding priorities do to all of us increases.

In the last several years, we have made choices that cut the very programs that help level the playing field. For instance, since 2011, we have cut more than $1 billion and about 50 programs from the Department of Education. Other programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Head Start, low-income heating assistance, and the school lunch program have seen similar cuts in recent years.

Deeper cuts in these programs would imperil our future. Consider the comments of the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, Jeff Zients, who confirmed that further cuts “would cause severe harm to many of the investments most critical to our country's long-term economic growth.  More than 16,000 teachers and aides responsible for educating thousands of children would lose their jobs. In addition, 700,000 women and children would lose the nutrition assistance they need to remain healthy. [And] 100,000 kids would lose places in Head Start that help them begin school ready to learn."  In short, continuing to cut these programs threatens our future.

Economists agree, finding that education spending is a larger source of job creation than military spending, clean energy investments, or health care spending. Every $1 billion spent on education generates about 29,100 jobs, 151 percent more than the number of jobs generated with an equivalent amount of military spending.

But Washington needs to do more than just stop taking a hacksaw to our future; it also must get serious about everyone paying their fair share to support that future. That means allowing the tax benefits enjoyed by the top 2 percent to expire at the end of the year. It means ensuring our tax code continues to provide some protections to low-income families.  And it means not cutting students’ financial assistance for college to fund the Defense Department. As the president himself recently noted, “Children don't have lobbyists the way oil companies or banks do. But it’s the dreams of those children that will be our saving grace.”

Washington lawmakers have to approach the current budget conversation focused on what it will take to make the dreams of our children the reality of our future.

—Kate Tromble