The Long View

We should do more to invest in our citizens’ futures

Economists generally agree that one of the most crucial factors contributing to a nation’s long-term growth is its stock of human capital—the skills, capabilities, and potential of its citizens to create, innovate, and produce goods.  The Obama administration is known for an economic policy that has haltingly tried to revitalize the economy, but the administration’s most profound economic legacy will come in the area of long-term growth. Through a variety of efforts, the Obama administration has done a great deal to increase America’s stock of human capital, and there are many more relatively non-ideological efforts that should be implemented over the next two years to continue increasing our nation’s competitiveness.

For workers to be able to skillfully perform at their jobs and acquire knowledge and skills at a rapid rate, they must be in the proper physical conditions to do so. It is exceedingly difficult to reliably excel in the workplace or in the classroom when a lack of healthcare coverage means that one devastating sickness can bankrupt or sideline the entire family. A family is forced to choose between health and other necessary expenses, and either careers or education will surely suffer. The Affordable Care Act’s enormous expansion of coverage will do a great deal to solve this problem by ensuring that everyone has access to affordable coverage, increasing their physical health and allowing them to focus on improving their performance in school or at work.

Another major obstacle to acquiring knowledge or talent for many poorer Americans has been the enormous cost of college. Tuition increases have far outpaced inflation or the rise of income, and many low-income students who choose to go to college have had to take out onerous high-interest student loans to pay the bills. The Obama administration’s student loan reform act will “eliminate fees paid to private banks to act as intermediaries in providing loans to college students and use much of the nearly $68 billion in savings over 11 years to expand Pell grants and make it easier for students to repay outstanding loans after graduating.” The bill also invested a great deal in community colleges, making it one of the strongest laws to support opportunities for higher education in many decades.

These important steps have done a great deal to expand opportunity and improve our human capital, but there are many more non-ideological methods to investing in our nation’s future that should strongly be considered by the Republican Congress in the upcoming two years. Michelle Obama’s child nutrition bill is a small bill that could have a huge impact on the future of our nation’s poorest children by ensuring that they have the healthy food they need to sustain them throughout their day and help them learn and reach their potential. This small bill could go a long way to preparing our kids for the future at their most important developmental stage.

Similarly, education reform, a traditionally Republican policy idea, is another area where both parties could work together to expand opportunities and knowledge. The Obama administration has already made a considerable impact through its “Race to the Top” funds in the stimulus, which have incentivized states across the nation to reward teachers for their students’ performance. Legislation that improves teacher training, changes tenure and accountability methods, and allocates the funds to increase the length of the school day and school year can all continue to build the country’s knowledge base.

Finally, many of these efforts could be for naught if we allow the current economic slowdown to have permanent effects on our long-term growth. Long-term unemployment causes skills to be lost and makes it much harder to re-enter the labor force. The government must do everything it can, including new stimulus programs and incentives for companies to hire again, to make sure that the unemployed can get back to work as soon as possible. While building our nation’s future skill base, we must make sure that our current one doesn’t disappear.

Investing in human capital is important because though redistribution and social welfare policies can reduce immediate inequality, in the long run, only a substantial expansion of capabilities and opportunities will make America a more fair society. To get to Harvard, many of us have been well fed and educated, and we will likely be able to do the same for our children. But many Americans do not have the privilege of enjoying this virtuous cycle, which is why the Obama administration’s investment in the future of its citizens has been so meaningful. Long after current politicians leave office, their policies will have enabled America to strengthen its foundation of a healthier, stronger, and more educated population.

Ravi N. Mulani ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is an applied mathematics concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.