By Susan Dreyfus
Some may say a president’s State of the Union address is inconsequential, but I believe it is important as it provides us, as a nation, an annual opportunity to respectfully discuss our values and priorities.
I was raised in a low-to-middle class family in Iowa. My father was a small business owner and we all worked the business starting at very young ages. He and my mother had high school diplomas and raised seven children. As a family, we worked hard, lived within our means, and therefore were able to have what we needed. I grew up listening to vigorous debates between my father, a veteran and staunch Republican, and his mother, a staunch Democrat. But they were just that, debates about ideas, not fights that divided and polarized them.
Fast forward to when I married into the Dreyfus family. My father-in-law was elected governor of Wisconsin soon after I married Lee, his son. Dad (Governor Lee Dreyfus) referred to himself as a “Republicrat.” He simply wanted to do what was right and he saw every decision through a long-term lens. He didn’t take polls to gauge his popularity week by week, but he stayed very close to the people. His cabinet was comprised of the best people who vigorously debated with one another. They were Democrats, Independents, and Republicans, but in the end they all shared the desire to do what was right for Wisconsin.
While Dad, as governor, thoughtfully reigned in spending, the statewide investment in human services increased every year he was in office. In fact, he was the first governor in the nation to sign into law equal rights for people who are gay. Dad believed in the rightful and necessary role of government, but he also believed in the intelligence, hopes, and dreams of the American people, viewing them as our country’s greatest asset.
Fast forward to 2015. We live in a global economy, the great recession and recovery can no longer be measured with the measurements used in the 20th century. Sure, unemployment is down, but what about underemployment, the loss of wages and the growing income gap in our country? What about the number of people who can’t find full-time employment with benefits? Yes, recovery is happening but let’s not become complacent in thinking the recovery is touching all Americans; nor can we think that the economic policies that worked in the past will work in this new, 21st-century world.
In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama deserves our respect for calling us to a higher ideal that believes all Americans deserve an equal shot at opportunity. But that doesn’t happen without policy that creates the playing field in which all people, regardless of income, color, gender, or neighborhood in which they live, have the same opportunity to dream the same dream and see a future for themselves that they can work hard and achieve. Let’s not deceive ourselves; this is not true in America today for all people.
We live in a global economy, our competitive advantage depends ultimately in the quality of our human capital…our people. I truly believe that the issue for taxpayers is not spending; it is spending that does not yield results. So, as someone who has administered billions of dollars in public spending in health and human services over the last 25 years, I offer the following:
- Invest in integrated quality healthcare that pays for healthcare for anyone who breaths a breath of air in this nation and invest in our public health system; we simply can’t afford not to. Remember, our physical and mental health are more determined by the environmental and social determinants, which is why the nonprofit community-based sector is a key partner if America is to bend the cost curve of healthcare and have a healthier, more productive people. We can’t afford not to!
- Invest in prenatal care and the first 2,000 days of every child’s life through parent skill-building and early childhood education and development, especially for children in low income households. We can’t afford not to!
- Invest in early education through the post-secondary level. President Obama reminded us during his address that, after World War II, we created universal tax-funded public high school since eighth grade education was no longer enough. Well, a high school diploma is no longer enough in this new global and technical economy and we need to extend high school through at least two years of community college. We can’t afford not to!
- Invest in America’s nonprofit human-serving sector, not as merely providers of a plethora of programs and services under contract with government, but rather as transformational agents of change in communities and entities whose greatest value is in their creation of social and human capital that results in stronger, more vibrant economies. We can’t afford not to!
Today I am a 57-year-old grandmother of three. My vote and my politics are now about them and their future, not mine. I am tired of the division and constant bickering between the parties. I see good in both parties, in their ideals and ideas. Both have good people who wake up every morning and have the best of intentions to do the right thing for their families, communities, and this nation.
In the end, government is about the art of finding consensus and moving forward. Let’s find it now and invest in our greatest asset as a nation: our people. We can’t afford not to!
Susan Dreyfus is president and CEO of the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities.