Thursday, January 01, 2009

Issues with Local Impacts 2009

I can think of a dozen or so national domestic issues likely to have substantial local ramifications during 2009 and beyond. I’ll mention three.

Economic Recession

“Our donors in past years have begun requesting our services,” – a situation reported over the past couple of months by nonprofit organizations – revealing that some middle and high income people, who had previously contributed their dollars to benefit others, now find themselves without a house, without a job, and in need of a handout. For at least a year, we can expect more foreclosures, more people losing jobs, poorer economic circumstances, on average, across the nation (and the world). State government will curtail activities. Some nonprofit organizations promoting the public good will go out of operation. Poverty and nutrition issues will not improve. This will affect many who have not previously experienced poverty and the effects of economic downturns.

However, I fear that the many middle and upper income people with secure employment and housing (and who can wait out the decline in the value of their retirement accounts) might not feel much pain at all. In fact, the opposite may happen. It’s a great time to have a little bit of money, because a little bit can go a long way. Housing prices have declined; mortgage providers have lowered their rates. Quality consumer goods have become available at a fraction of their original sticker price. (Walking through Macy’s a few days before Christmas, I felt as if store employees wanted to pay me to take merchandise rather than the other way around; also, the number of people taking advantage of the steeply discounted items to make purchases for themselves seemed almost as large as the number of gift shoppers.)

If a large proportion of us do not understand the realities of what our communities face this year, the likelihood of amassing the political will to overcome challenges is low. We need to make sure this does not occur.

State spending is extremely important, as many economists, including Nobel prize winner Paul Krugman, have noted. We need to find a way to use state government as one of the economic levers to get funds flowing through local economies.

Carleen Rhodes recently commented on the situation of community-based organizations that contribute so much to the fabric and infrastructure of our communities. They have experienced snowballing needs recently, while their investment assets have decreased and their charitable contributions have declined. She hopes that the strong Minnesota tradition of giving will help pull these organizations through hard times. Her essay made me wonder: Why do we talk about bailing out an industry that has ignored market forces, developed products that consumers world-wide largely prefer not to purchase, lavishly paid its executives even when they performed ineptly – but we don’t propose to help the small businesses and community nonprofits that have competently, wisely and prudently operated in our communities?

Health and Health Care

Universal health coverage. Why we have people who cannot obtain health care in the United States, I don’t know. Actually, one of my health care providers said that he knows – "It’s 80% greed and 20% institutional inertia." was his assessment. That's probably too cynical a view of the many interests affected by health care reform. Many different groups sincerely want to improve our system of care, and they don't all agree. However, it's clear that there will have to be a lot of give and take in order to promote the health of our communities' residents in an optimal way.

I lived in the United Kingdom for a year and carried a national health card while there. This can work. Beyond personal experience, I’ve seen the data. If you think your chances of living longer and healthier, even if you have great health insurance and access to care, are better in the U.S., than in countries with universal health care coverage, think again. You’re kidding yourself.

With inadequate health care, people cannot perform as well at jobs, they can’t do as well academically. The negative consequences affect all of us in a variety of ways: higher insurance rates; higher demands on local government which we must fund; more illnesses transmitted and more costs of care for ourselves and our families.

Neither Bill Clinton nor George Bush accomplished necessary health care reform. Let’s hope that President-elect Obama resolves to make progress that means so much to the physical and mental health of our communities’ residents.

Disparities in health care. As I’ve mentioned before, differences in health outcomes based on race and class will increasingly become an Achilles heel for our nation, as populations of color increase as a proportion of our population. Universal health coverage is one major step toward eliminating disparities, but we’ll need to take other steps as well.

Obesity and diabetes rates. As I’ve also mentioned before, these rates are rising. They cost all of us, directly or indirectly, through greater incidence of chronic diseases, higher medical costs, pain and suffering among families, lowered life expectancy for some individuals, and other consequences.


Education constitutes one of the most important tools we have to remedy our current economic situation and to make our communities as healthy and productive as possible. This means education in all its forms: primary; secondary; post-secondary; re-education of workers with outmoded skills; and so on.

Yet our high school math scores show that we do not produce the graduates we need for strong, competitive businesses of the future.

The achievement gap between White students and students Of Color persists – a threat to our vitality because of the increasing diversity of our young population and the need to educate all young people.

School districts have announced cutbacks. Many urban schools, where some of the most serious achievement issues exist, lack innovation and creativity. Some initiatives do seem to have promise. I was very impressed with what I saw on my visit with Twin Cities leaders to Atlanta – a superintendent with a vision and commanding presence, collaboration with the business community, a serious focus on data for management and improvement (not just for compliance and teaching to the test), a system that attempts to take a “whole school approach”, rewarding teachers, principals, cafeteria workers, and janitors, when test scores markedly improve. Let’s hope we can learn from these models. Increased funding is definitely not the panacea; we must implement new approaches.

Wilder Research

We plan to address these and other issues in our work during the coming year. I’ll fill you in on more specifics.

In the meanwhile, I encourage you to think seriously about whatever you consider the top issues for our communities in 2009 and about how you plan to work on them.

I welcome your thoughts – about the issues, about what Wilder Research might do, and about how our communities can move ahead.

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