For the next debate, how about jobs and the economy?
America is facing an opportunity crisis. From 2006 to 2016, two-thirds of America’s counties had a net loss of businesses, and those same counties shed more than 1 million private sector jobs. Meanwhile, one-third of America’s counties added more than 350,000 businesses and close to 7 million private sector jobs. Talk about two Americas. One is seemingly swimming in opportunity and the other is drowning in despair.
Yet, as lifelong Democrats, we are bullish on the future economic well-being of the country, as well as the opportunity prospects for the people and places who have been left behind in our modern digital economy. That is why at the next Democratic debate — between the sparring, the search for a viral moment and the obsession over candidates’ record — we want to see a discussion on the ideas each have to make sure every day people have an opportunity to earn a good life in the digital age. And while we are optimists, we are also realists. To solve the opportunity crisis, we need a bold, positive and pragmatic Democratic Party that understands that we must adapt to the digital age, not wish it away.
The first step is realizing that the biggest economic problem facing the country is the concentration of opportunity to too few people and places. In the 1990s, with the internet first taking wing, the belief was that anyone could succeed anywhere so long as they were hooked up to a computer. It turned out that innovation concentrated economic opportunity rather than dispersed it widely.
So, while the concentration of wealth in America is a moral crisis and one that Democrats rightfully decry, what is so vexing and destructive is how only a handful of dynamic metros are powering the country and just the one-third of American adults with a college degree or better are earning consistent wage gains. For so many others, there’s no real shot at earning a good life where they live.
The second step is believing that this problem can be solved. That’s not to say it can be easily solved — it can’t. And perhaps that is why so few politicians of either party are highlighting opportunity concentration as a true American crisis.
But America has unparalleled advantages that still make our nation the land of opportunity no matter your zip code, your race, your gender or your sexual orientation. But we need policies that stoke opportunity far beyond the urban coasts, a few inland dots, and a handful of workers with the right credentials. And we must continue to confront and defeat the historic systemic discrimination that has limited opportunity for people of color, women and the LGBTQ community.
Such policies would connect people and places to opportunity physically and digitally, as well as tear down barriers that prevent people from achieving their full potential. Broadband internet for every nook and cranny of the country — and for those of all income levels — would be the least we could do for those not in high-paced urban cores or affluent suburbs.
An infrastructure plan that dramatically reduced the travel time — by car, train, plane or boat — between thriving urban powerhouses and struggling communities would connect far more places to opportunity. Greater federal research money to colleges and universities beyond the small number who receive the lion’s share of grants today would create jobs and entrepreneurship. A federal opportunity fund could seed states with venture capital money to help grow new businesses in regions of the country that Wall Street investors and big banks have ignored.
A massive apprenticeship program could pair those without four-year college degrees to jobs in regions throughout America, providing skills and a wage while they train for a job. A humane immigration policy that legalizes most of those who are here and offers permanent visas for those wanting to start businesses in left-behind parts of America would be good for the country economically and spiritually.
We cannot simply rail about problems — we have to either solve them or decide to lose out. We have watched the economy change and affect the lives of communities and people we hold dear. But we also see so much potential for opportunity. America still has advantages that no other country possesses. We have a unique diversity that brings us strength. But we cannot solve these problems with pessimism, populism or insularism. We need an optimistic opportunity Democrat to lead us to the country we can be.
Winston Fisher is a partner at Fisher Brothers and Co-Chair of the NYC Regional Economic Development Council.
Jim Kessler is executive vice president and a co-founder of Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank.
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