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.

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

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

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.


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