A driving principle of our country’s success is that parents and grandparents have consistently and voluntarily made sacrifices to ensure opportunities for subsequent generations.
But today, public policies cast a long shadow on that tradition.
Last week, Standard & Poor’s announced that it was revising the outlook for the U.S. bond rating to “negative.” Many blame the rapidly accelerating debt and the enormous interest payments necessary to simply maintain that debt.
But the impetus for the S&P’s fears is that the United States is fundamentally unwilling to address the four areas that, along with interest payments, constitute a whopping 82.5 percent of the federal government’s ballooning expenditures: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and defense spending.
People are appropriately screaming that we are leaving the next generation an unwieldy burden of debt. The real problem isn’t the debt, however, but the continued misalignment of spending priorities.
Rather than investing in global competitiveness and long-term opportunities through thoughtful advancements in K-12 and higher education, dollars are increasingly spent on defense or on programs that primarily benefit older generations.
The result is that we are not only handing the next generation unprecedented debt, but concurrently ensuring that the next generation will be ill-equipped to solve the challenges we’re leaving them.
We must examine our spending collectively. Like many people, if I choose to have a chocolate chip cookie, I know it requires me to cut calories elsewhere. Purchasing a new refrigerator means I postpone buying that couch.
Our federal government, on the other hand, strives to be everything to everyone. The result is that it fails in its fundamental role to ensure equality of opportunity.
And nowhere does society better propel equality of opportunity than in providing a superb education to every child.
Some respond that we need a strong defense. They are correct. But the United States spends 46.5 percent of the world’s defense dollars. The second largest military, that of China, constitutes 6.6 percent of the world’s defense expenditures.
How much larger does our military need to be than the second largest military? Do we have to be seven times as large, or is five times as large big enough?
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently declared, “Our greatest national security threat might just be the disastrous state of our K-12 education system.”
The trade-offs are even more obvious when highlighting Social Security and Medicare. With an aging population, the pressure on these programs will continue to rise.
While those 65 and older currently comprise 13 percent of the population, that figure is projected to jump to one-fifth of the population by 2030. And the highest-cost users of Medicare — those 85 and older — will quadruple in number (from 5.3 million to 21 million) by 2050.
Coupled with this aging population is a decrease in the proportion who are workers. In 1950, there were 16.5 workers per Social Security beneficiary; in a few short years only 2 workers will be supporting each Social Security recipient.
This, compounded by medical costs twice those per capita in other developed countries, creates a system that is simply unsustainable.
This is not to suggest we eliminate support for the elderly and the less fortunate or for our nation’s defense, but rather to acknowledge that prioritizing some things does come at the expense of others, including education.
This is particularly alarming and ironic as education is the very thing necessary to sustain the long-term viability of all of those programs.
I am not suggesting the federal government lead in public education. Rather, it should fix its fiscally irresponsible policies so states have the necessary money for education.
Parents and grandparents must demand that our federal government reprioritize. Inaction is negligence toward our children and their future — as well as our own.
This post is part of an ongoing series of data-driven commentary on current events. It was originally published in the Deseret News.