Walking and Chewing Gum

Alan Jenkins

The challenges facing Americans today tend to be framed in the media and on the campaign trail as a daunting and often depressing laundry list of economic and social woes: home foreclosures and bank failures, rising health care costs and falling wages, underfunded schools and unaffordable colleges. Not surprisingly, the solutions dished up by the presidential campaigns and Beltway think tanks tend to be similarly piecemeal.

While each of these individual problems is important, and cries out for specific solutions, the laundry list approach to social policy miscomprehends the extraordinary circumstances that our nation now faces and, therefore, fails to produce an adequate response. We face today not just a health care, housing, education, and jobs crisis, but an Opportunity crisis—a grave threat to the profoundly American idea that everyone deserves a fair chance to achieve his or her full potential.

Opportunity is about individuals, but it is also about the health, wealth, and prosperity of our nation as a whole. When we fail to protect opportunity by policing predatory lending or preventing housing and credit discrimination, financial security and homeownership are threatened across our society. When we fail to ensure a legal pathway to citizenship and integration for immigrant workers and families, we see exploitation and depressed wages across our workforce. When we allow a college education and basic health care to become unaffordable for everyday Americans, our economy and national ingenuity, as well as our national health and security, are at risk.

As I’ve noted before in this column, Opportunity is not just a set of national conditions, but fulfillment of a set of national values: equal treatment, economic security and mobility, a voice in decisions that affect us, a chance to start over after missteps or misfortune, and a shared sense of responsibility for each other as members of a common national community. When our public commitment to those values flags, the impact is felt across our interconnected society. But when we invest in expanding opportunity to more and more Americans, our entire nation moves forward.

Making our economy work for everyone will require a recommitment to national values and systems that includes but goes far beyond fiscal policy. It will require Congress, the new President, and leaders around the country to walk and chew gum at the same time—that is, they must simultaneously advance short-term policy implementation and longer-term expansion of opportunity for all.

Pursuing sustainable and cleaner forms of energy, for example, is both crucial in its own right and an engine (no pun intended) for decent jobs and reinvestment in math, science, and environmental education. Rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure of roads, bridges, and tunnels is independently essential, and a platform for transitioning to clean transportation systems that connect low-income communities to healthy food stores, good jobs, and health care facilities.

Immigration is another area in which we need sophisticated and effective solutions that uphold our nation’s values and move us forward together. That means a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s 12 million undocumented immigrants, paired with enforcement of fair labor, anti-discrimination, and safe workplace rules for all workers and workplaces.

While our federal immigration policy is broken, we have no federal immigrant integration policy at all. Immigrants are already an essential part of our economic engine and the social fabric of our communities. Research shows that initiatives providing them the opportunity to learn English and US customs, as well as rights and responsibilities, enable their full contribution and participation to our nation.

Moving to guaranteed, affordable health care for all must, of course, be a top priority. But insurance coverage alone will not fix the gaping inequality in health care access and quality faced by rural and inner city communities as well as many minority neighborhoods. Expanding the highly successful models of community clinics and community health care planning based on actual health needs will help to control costs while ensuring that all Americans receive the health care they need at a price they can pay. The benefits from such a shift, moreover, include not only health care cost savings but also greater worker productivity, fewer health care related bankruptcies, and a boost to the creation and success of small businesses.

Expanding opportunity is not so much a policy choice as a commitment to values that must inform virtually all of our policy choices. Doing so is not just about the vulnerable and dispossessed in our country; it’s about all of us.

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