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State of the Union: optimistic call to invest in young people

We have a healthy birth rate but without a strong education system, we won't compete internationally.

President Obama delivers the 2012 State of the Union address to Congress.

President Obama delivers the 2012 State of the Union address to Congress. Pete Souza/White House

Presidents are required to be optimistic.The American people expect it — and reward those politicians who know their lines. President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Tuesday night followed The Script (so much so that Republicans released a video dismissing the president’s consistent rhetoric as more of the same).

“The state of our Union is getting stronger. And we’ve come too far to turn back now,” the president said. He promised “to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place.”

The president said the “defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive ... no debate is more important.”

That is the rub. That is where the president’s optimism hits the side wall in a country divided. One side of our body politic is consumed by a deep distrust of anything that smacks of government, even when government actions are in our best interest.

We need to make the case for government investment. Putting money into programs and policies that will reward society. I would put education at the top of that list.

We have, as a nation, a demographic advantage over many other nations. The United States has a higher fertility rate than that of Russia, Germany, Japan and well above that of China, Italy, Singapore and most of eastern Europe.  We have a young, growing working population.

But to execute that advantage we need to do improve higher education.

At the very moment we need a better educated work force, we are making it more difficult for young people to succeed in college. As the president put it: “When kids do graduate, the most daunting challenge can be the cost of college. At a time when Americans owe more in tuition debt than credit card debt.”

This is a crippling problem for young people. Just over a year ago when I was on my Kaiser Family Foundation fellowship I talked to medical professionals  — doctors, dentists and nurses — who said the type of practice they were planning was dictated my their debt load. I heard many young doctors talk about what it was like to owe hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’d like to see more loan forgiveness programs, focusing on the areas of health need such as rural medicine.

The president called on Congress to limit interest rates on student loans, increase student aid and work-study. He also asked states to make education a higher priority in their budgets. I love that idea ... but it shows the complexity of these problems. States cannot add more money into education until the country reduces its health care spending.

The president talked about restoring a manufacturing sector in this country. I suppose that could happen, only on a limited scale. But I don’t think we are ever going to have the type of factories and jobs that once built our middle class. But we can have a nation that, on the whole, is more creative, better educated and prepared for the challenges ahead.

But before any of this happens, we have to get over this notion that all government spending is bad. It’s time to invest in young people.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. You can reach him through www.marktrahant.com. He is the author of "The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars," the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Jan 25, 7:56 a.m. Inappropriate

A member of one of our internal "sovereign nations" lamenting a "country divided". Priceless. We have met the enemy and they are... YOU.

BlueLight

Posted Wed, Jan 25, 12:38 p.m. Inappropriate

Why can't the US move toward the model that many European nations use: A high school student going on to college attends school through the 13th grade, and graduates with the equivalent of an associate's degree. All that's needed at that point is two years in college to get a bachelor's. That would cut the cost of a college education almost in half, and only modestly add to the cost of running the public schools.

dbreneman

Posted Thu, Jan 26, 7:33 a.m. Inappropriate

One of the comments here takes a completely uninformed view of tribal sovereignty to imply that members of tribes are not part of this country. Of course, the idea that people have different loyalties has always been a bit challenging in U.S. history: Witness the history of people being concerned that a Roman Catholic president would answer to the pope, or more basically, that Catholics didn't belong in this country. As most Americans will gratefully recognize, our freedoms have been protected by, among others, members of the military from tribes all over this great land: http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq61-1.htm

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