A 21st Century Social Net

Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.

A 21st Century Social Net

The economy is so huge and measurements are so numerous that statistics can always be found to support any view.  But looking at the overall picture, things are pretty good.  But they never were and will never be, equally good for everyone. It is time to start the discussions and debate about what would constitute necessary and healthy forms of protection that do not reinstate feelings of entitlement.

The need for a vastly more effective public school system of K-12 education has become painfully self-evident.  And a key part of a 21st century safety net is transmitting key knowledge to every child and in such a way that that child becomes a person for whom learning is an essential source of pride and pleasure.  Education in the 21st century has to create people who are curious and who take life-long learning for granted.

The educational system must also encourage or require high levels of self-discipline in regards to work; children need to be taught that success is the outcome of hard work and learning is, at this point in their life, their job.  Children’s work needs to be individualized so that the level of achievement being required is a challenge but the child can succeed.  At least as important as mastering the facts, children need to develop confidence in their abilities which they will achieve by succeeding with stretch tasks.  Schools need to end self-esteem programs in which kids are rewarded because they exist and show up.  Confidence, resilience and self-esteem are not achieved without striving and then succeeding in something challenging.

While we will not have a 100 percent success rate, nonetheless, these goals of learning and personal development should be the paramount goals of the first phase of education.

Some experts believe that radical changes in the K-12 system are necessary in order to keep our population competitive in the world marketplace of jobs.  The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, is a 26 member bipartisan committee that includes New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, four former cabinet secretaries and union and corporate representatives.  This commission issued a unanimous report which proposes extreme changes, a major shake-up, in the system of how we educate children.   The commission noted that despite a 240 percent increase in funding over the past 30 years, the improvement in test scores of reading and math have scarcely budged from their low levels.

Among other ideas, The New Commission recommended:

  • Ending high school for the majority of adolescents at age 16, after Grade 10. The majority of high school dropouts leave because they are bored and this would tend to prevent that. Students would have to pass a state proficiency exam that complied with national standards of required achievement that demonstrated that students have world-class skills. After passing the exam most students would either go to a community college or into job training. No student would be permitted to leave school until they passed the high school exam. After passing the exam some students could remain in high school and take advanced courses that prepared them to enter 4-year colleges.
  • Part of the money saved by eliminated the last two years of high school would be used to fund a year of preschool for all four years olds and all low-income three year olds.
  • Another part of the funds now available would be used to attract teachers from the top third of college classes by doubling teacher’s salaries. Entry level teachers would earn $45,000 a year which could rise to $95,000 over the course of a career. In special circumstances teachers could earn up to $110,000. The nation needs a modern safety-net especially for the many people who will, at times, find themselves adrift, losers in the turmoil of a rapidly changing economy.  We need to continue those policies which have led to broad economic gains but we also need to provide aid for those who were left behind and those who are newly vulnerable.  Because major changes in the economy can now impact anyone, the new safety net must include everyone, from the factory floor to well-educated knowledge workers.

Some ideas which have been proposed include:

  •  Harder times call for new ideas.  Let the debate begin!
  • Wage insurance for displaced employees that would make up part of the difference in earnings in a new job for 2 years.
  • Catastrophe insurance in case of death of a spouse, disability, a major drop in income or a medical crisis.
  • A federally mandated higher minimum wage.
  • A higher Earned Income Tax Credit.
  • Pension insurance.
  • Tax incentives for businesses to stay and workers to retrain.
  • A 401(k) plan for low- and middle-income earners in which the government would match up to 2-to-1 the first $2000 of savings.
  • All newborns from the middle- and lower-classes would receive from $500-$1000 in investment accounts which could accept other contributions – contributions to poor children’s accounts would be matched – and would grow tax-free.
  • Health-Savings Plans and other new forms of health insurance.

Fixing Social Security and Medicare:

  • Changes in the goals of unions so they become more effective and relevant because leaders and members understand a global economy and competition.
  • Unions accept the need to be flexible and innovative because they know rigid labor rules and bloated compensation make their organizations non-competitive. They also know troubled companies are opportunities for financiers to take over, sell parts and cut jobs.
  • Union leaders and members collaborate with management because it is in their best interest to improve customer outcomes, productivity and profits.
  • Improve education by making it more accessible and relevant.
  • A new GI Bill available to everyone.
  • Flexible education accounts, i.e. a tax credit of up to $15,000 per decade.
  • Employers and schools collaborate and customize programs.
  • Increased training and apprenticeship programs.
  • Assessments of current and future skill shortages.
  • Identification of current and future growth industries.
  • Fellowships based on merit.
  • A seriously revised K-12 system based on results.
  • Merit increases for effective teachers.
  • Increased school choices for K-12 including vouchers, charter schools, and tax credits for low income students to attend private schools.
  • Education for parents to bring their knowledge up to date and help them to create a learning environment.
  • Major curriculum changes from kindergarten through college.
  • Encourage innovation and creativity.
  • Reinforce self-reliance as well as team work.
  • Create knowledge about capitalism, investing and handling money.
  • Encourage life-long learning.
  • Enhance civil behavior by focusing on civics and ethics
  • Include interpersonal as well as work related skills.
  • Increase leadership skills.

Many of these ideas are designed to reduce the risk of individuals by creating interventions in which some of the risk is shared by large numbers of people through taxes.  An indirect outcome of such programs would be the reinstatement of a greater sense of being part of a community and one that cares.

Some people believe that America is not scared enough. The current level of fear, in fact, is far too great and has led to a deep pessimism and a scary passivity, the result of expecting the worst and feeling helpless to do anything about it.  We don’t need more fear.  What we do need is a focused sense of urgency with leaders who provide the direction for change.




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