A financial debt can be paid back. But the debt we'll owe our children if investments in health, nutrition and education are slashed is irreparable. Investment in human infrastructure – providing the human capacity development for optimal economic productivity and innovation through both government and business investments – is essential for success in the post-industrial economy, and this should be our policymakers' guiding economic principle.
It's up to us to ask the hard questions: Why are we being told we can't raise taxes on the rich, but must cut wages for teachers, nurses, child-care workers and others on whom our future depends? There is no evidence that lower taxes on corporations and millionaires "raise all boats," or that massive cuts in social services have ever helped people in developing nations rise from poverty. The opposite is true. It is countries like Canada, Sweden, New Zealand and Finland that have made commitments to caring for future generations that have risen from poverty to prosperity. And today nations such as Brazil, South Korea, and other "emerging advanced economies" are heavily investing in their people.
Why are we told that cutting social programs is the road to prosperity, when our past prosperity was the result of the very opposite?
At the beginning of the 20th century, the United States was what we today call a "developing country." Except for the super-rich, our general living standard was abysmal: child and general mortality rates were extremely high, as was poverty. Then we invested in prenatal and child health care such as vaccines; abolished child labor; mandated not only primary, but also secondary public education; and promoted college education through the GI Bill for returning soldiers. These kinds of government expenditures, along with Social Security, Medicare, Head Start and other government programs to care for and educate our people had a huge return on investment for our people and nation.
Today, largely as a result of retrenching in such public expenditures, the U.S. has higher child mortality, maternal mortality and poverty rates than any other developed nation. According to a 2007 UNICEF study, the U.S. ranked 24th of 25 developed countries with children living below the national poverty level. By comparison, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Spain topped the list. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that poverty afflicts roughly one in six American children—some 13 million youths, a figure that's expected to rise as poverty trends continue to soar.
In 2009, more than 4.4 million single mothers earned wages below the national poverty level and were barely able to supply their children with basic needs. That number of women had increased 6.7 percent compared to the previous year, according to census figures. The kinds of cuts now proposed — especially cuts to programs to help impoverished families with children — will push us down even further.
By contrast, investing in education, health care, child-care and eldercare drastically reduces unemployment, poverty, public assistance, spending on prisons -- and at the same time provides a trained work force and higher tax base. According to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 37 percent of Americans believe job creation/economic growth is our nation's No. 1 issue, and only 22 percent named the deficit/government spending as the top. What's more, while Americans find some budget cuts acceptable; they adamantly oppose cuts in Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and K-12 education.
That's because most of us know that our most important assets are our people. If we don't invest in human infrastructure, we cannot be economically successful.
We urgently need a realistic long-term perspective on how national and state deficits are calculated. The human capital deficit created by cutting social programs will be irreparable. By contrast, benefits to individuals, families, businesses and society at large from investment in human infrastructure will accrue for generations.
There's an old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Our priorities should be exactly what the "deficit hawks" are putting on the chopping block. Cutting those programs is criminal behavior, not sound policy.
Riane Eisler is president of the Center for Partnership Studies (www.partnershipway.org) and author of The Real Wealth of Nations and The Chalice & the Blade. Rene Redwood is CEO of Redwood Enterprise in Washington, D.C. (www.redwoodenterprise.com).