Monday, April 23, 2007
A few years ago, watching TV with my teenage son, I was struck by a point that financial-advice guru Suze Orman made to an audience of college students. What assets in America, she asked, are undervalued? Certainly not stocks, nor residential housing. The prices for both of those had skyrocketed. No, she said, pointing to the audience: You’re the asset that America is still undervaluing. And she was right.
Orman’s point was that in order to get ahead, young people have to invest in themselves, which is certainly true. But that kind of investment isn’t only an individual or family responsibility. America benefits when it invests in its young. After World War II, the GI Bill enabled young veterans and their families to obtain higher education, job training, health care, and home mortgages. The Greatest Generation got a great boost, and the investment paid off not just for the members of that generation, but for the country as a whole.
The GI Bill was in keeping with a long-established pattern of war and social policy. When the nation asks much of its youth in wartime, it does more for them in return afterward. But America today asks little of its youth and does less for them, when it ought to be both asking and doing more.
Since the early years after World War II, when American society devoted so much of its resources to the young, particularly to education, there has been an unmistakable shift in social spending. Benefits have gone increasingly to the aged as Social Security and Medicare have grown. I am not bemoaning either of those programs: together, they have dramatically reduced poverty and improved the health and well-being of the elderly, who earn those benefits through a lifetime of work. But America has in the meantime lost sight of its rational interest in investing in young families.
A variety of social indicators show the results. Just this past month, UNICEF brought together data on poverty rates, health, social behavior, families, and peer relationships in a study of the well-being of children and adolescents in 21 rich countries. In the overall ranking, the United States came in next to last.
To remedy these failings, we should be doing more to improve early childhood education and other policies affecting young children. But we should also be thinking about their parents–and the young people who will be parents not long from now.
Many of the forces affecting the economy today come to bear hardest on young people starting out in life: the soaring cost of a college education; the difficulty in finding jobs that provide a middle-class income; lack of health insurance coverage; the long escalation in housing prices; and the conflicts between the demands of work and family life.
We need a New Deal for the Young–a Young America Program–that can help young people cope with those challenges. At least part of that program ought to draw on the lesson of the GI Bill. Americans will be ready to be more generous to the young if the beneficiaries have demonstrated responsibility and contributed something through their own efforts. The United States no longer needs to draft or recruit most of its youth into military service. But we could make national service, whether civilian or military, a routine experience, for some in their late teens and for others after college. And, in return, we could help them to deal with the responsibilities of paying for their education, first homes, health coverage, and the rising costs of raising children.
A Young America program would not provide something for nothing. Like the GI Bill and Social Security, its benefits would be earned. And because of its focus on youth, it would be a way of helping Americans, individually and collectively, become more productive as well as more secure.
The premise of a Young America program would be the inclusive conception of freedom and power that are at the core of modern liberalism. An increasingly unequal America that exposes so many of its young to poverty and insecurity cannot be the strong and prosperous nation all Americans want it to be. Government can be the means for expanding the horizon of freedom, creating opportunity, and making a society both more powerful and more just. The world used to think of America as a country where the young had possibilities unmatched anywhere else. The United States could be that country again.
Paul Starr, professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University and founding co-editor of The American Prospect, is the author of Freedom’s Power: The True Force of Liberalism, from which parts of this article have been adapted. He writes a blog at the book’s website.