Learning from history

February 15, 2015 chris
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I’ve always admired U.S. President Harry S. Truman. Even though he never earned a college degree, I believe he had more wisdom than most of our Ivy-League educated leaders.

Truman once said, “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” That is a profound statement. It is also very true and very relevant to the political issues we face today.

The two biggest issues Alabama continues to stru-ggle with are the economy and the hole in the state’s General Fund budget.

During the elections, every politician talked about “jobs, jobs, jobs!” And over the past few weeks, state leaders have cited the recent decline in the state’s unemployment rate as proof of success.

But economists have pointed out that the unem-ployment rate is misleading. 

First, the drop in unemployment doesn’t factor in people who leave the workforce (typically because they’ve moved or have given up on finding work). And in Alabama, our workforce has shrunk, creating a false drop in the unemployment rate.

The unemployment rate also does not indicate what kind of jobs we are creating. If you read the government reports, you will see most of the new jobs being created are low-skill, low-wage jobs that don’t pay enough to provide for a family of four.

And lastly, the unemployment rate can – and has – been affected by national economic shifts. As a part of America, when the American economy picks up and the national unemployment rate goes down, it’s only natural that the state unemployment rate would go down as well.

While the economy is still a primary focus for most legislators this year, we also have to face the reality of a $265-700 million hole in the state’s General Fund budget.

State leaders have floated along several ideas to address the hole, such as combining the Education and General Fund budgets, and even the possibility of raising taxes.

But as we look at solutions to both problems, we also have to realize that both problems are linked. Our solutions to the budget will impact our economy, and potentially in a negative way.

For example, some state leaders have talked about more budget cuts (they like to call it “right-sizing” because that polls better than calling it what it really is – laying people off and cutting benefits for public servants like law enforcement or educators).

But the truth is that we can’t afford to cut anymore. We have already lost nearly a dozen rural hospitals throughout the state, leaving thousands of Alabamians without local healthcare providers. We have seen class sizes in many areas grow to unmanageable levels. Our courts are backed up, delaying justice for victims and families. The list goes on and on.

These budget cuts have a real impact on Alabama families. Obviously, the people who lose their jobs are out of work. That means those people aren’t spending as much, which means local businesses aren’t making as much.

But it’s not just laid off employees who are feeling the pain.

There are people who can no longer see their doctor because their doctor had to quit taking Medicaid patients. And those who relied on those rural hospitals for their healthcare now have to travel farther or do without. These are just a few examples of how the budget cuts have had a negative impact on both the economy and the lives of Alabama families.

As legislators prepare to debate potential solutions to these problems, we need to remember President Truman’s words, and re-member our nation’s and our state’s history.

The only solution that will truly work is one where we grow our entire economy. Too many state leaders want to push for more tax breaks for big business and hope the benefits will trickle down to the rest of the state.

History has proven that won’t work. Our economy was never stronger than it was in those post-World War II years when our government invested in people. Programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority and the G.I. Bill created jobs and gave hope to millions of Americans.

I’m not saying we need to start throwing money around (we don’t have it, anyway). 

And I’m certainly not for more taxes. But if we continue to slash funding for critical government services, our economy will not get back to where it was before the Great Recession.

Instead of cutting more, let’s put our focus on investing in what we know works, like workforce development training and education programs like the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative.

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel in order to see progress. All we have to do is learn from our own history.