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We’re Not Broke ... and We Must Invest in Young People or the Old Folks Will Lose

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Google the phrase, “we can’t afford,” and some 209 million results pop up that capture our Great Public Debate. Articles range from a defense of any public program, schools, health care, fighting homelessness, to preservation of the U.S. military. On the other side of the Google divide different articles suggest we can no longer afford Social Security, Medicaid or just about any of the social programs operated by government.

But if you Google the phrase, “we’re broke,” there are only 92 million returns. The stories are far less divergent. The storyline, “we’re broke” seems to be sticking. It’s become accepted (although there are a growing number of logical challenges). Much of that discourse stems from the drumbeat from Speaker of the House John Boehner who along with fellow Republicans, often repeats “we’re broke” as an answer to just about any question. (Or “broke going on bankrupt.”)

However both the “what-can-we-afford?” and “we’re broke” arguments miss big when it comes to answering the questions “Who are we? What kind of country do we want to be? And what’s really important to our future success?” Answer those first, then you can debate what resources are required to get there.

We can’t develop a national strategy if our policy choices are simply reactive. To me, the best public policy decisions reflect an understanding of where we need to go, matched by the data from existing demographics. We should start with who are we? That’s the critical question to answer before we debate resources.

Who are we? We are divided by demographics. We are older and white; we are younger and brown. It’s those two trends that we must figure out before we answer any question about resources.

Consider New Mexico as the future of America.

“There are going to be more and more states that are going to look like New Mexico,” Mark Mather, a demographer at the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington-based nonprofit that tracks international demographics, said in The Denver Post.

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New Mexico grew 13 percent between 2000 and 2010 to 2.1 million people. The state’s Latino population accounted for 78 percent of that growth—and now account for 46 percent of the population. It’s not a majority—yet. And American Indians are nearly 9 percent of the state. In both groups, the average age is far younger than that of the rest of the country. Indeed, nationally, another way to look at the data is that Latino, American Indian, Alaska Native, African American and Asian American populations will represent the majority of all children by as soon as 2023.

But the elderly are growing fast too. New Mexico’s 60-year-old plus population is now 18 percent and in by 2025 is projected to top 30 percent of the population. Elders are picking sun belt states like New Mexico to live. As demographer William H. Frey put it a few years ago for The Brookings Institute: “The aging of the baby boom generation makes pre-seniors this decade’s fastest growing age group, expanding nearly 50 percent in size from 2000 to 2010. Poised to create a “senior tsunami” beginning in 2011, this group will be more highly educated, have more professional women, and exhibit more household diversity than previous generations entering traditional retirement age.”

Who gets to pay for this senior tsunami? Of course the younger people who will soon represent the majority of this country. But this becomes a thorny question when it’s framed by the discourse about being broke.

We’re already telling the future bill payers that we can’t afford to educate this cohort of Americans (unless they amass unbelievable amounts of debt). Or we can’t afford to keep them healthy. And we can’t afford to invest in new ideas that create jobs for this growing group of people (even when we know the current structure of jobs won’t be enough).

This is backwards. We need a new social contract—a governing agreement—that promotes the idea that if we invest in young Latino, Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, then perhaps, just perhaps, they will agree to tax themselves enough to pay the bills for a society with a large population of older, whiter Americans. This social contract assumes the older population will, in turn, invest now in the future generations' promise.

If we as a nation think we are broke now, imagine what it will be like if the next generation refuses to pick up the tab.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s recent book,The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars, is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.