We’re Not Broke ... and We Must Invest in Young People or the Old Folks Will Lose

Mark Trahant

Google the phrase, “we can’t afford,” and some 209 million results pop up that capture our Great Public Debate. Articles range from a defense of any public program, schools, health care, fighting homelessness, to preservation of the U.S. military. On the other side of the Google divide different articles suggest we can no longer afford Social Security, Medicaid or just about any of the social programs operated by government.

But if you Google the phrase, “we’re broke,” there are only 92 million returns. The stories are far less divergent. The storyline, “we’re broke” seems to be sticking. It’s become accepted (although there are a growing number of logical challenges). Much of that discourse stems from the drumbeat from Speaker of the House John Boehner who along with fellow Republicans, often repeats “we’re broke” as an answer to just about any question. (Or “broke going on bankrupt.”)

However both the “what-can-we-afford?” and “we’re broke” arguments miss big when it comes to answering the questions “Who are we? What kind of country do we want to be? And what’s really important to our future success?” Answer those first, then you can debate what resources are required to get there.

We can’t develop a national strategy if our policy choices are simply reactive. To me, the best public policy decisions reflect an understanding of where we need to go, matched by the data from existing demographics. We should start with who are we? That’s the critical question to answer before we debate resources.

Who are we? We are divided by demographics. We are older and white; we are younger and brown. It’s those two trends that we must figure out before we answer any question about resources.

Consider New Mexico as the future of America.

“There are going to be more and more states that are going to look like New Mexico,” Mark Mather, a demographer at the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington-based nonprofit that tracks international demographics, said in The Denver Post.

New Mexico grew 13 percent between 2000 and 2010 to 2.1 million people. The state’s Latino population accounted for 78 percent of that growth—and now account for 46 percent of the population. It’s not a majority—yet. And American Indians are nearly 9 percent of the state. In both groups, the average age is far younger than that of the rest of the country. Indeed, nationally, another way to look at the data is that Latino, American Indian, Alaska Native, African American and Asian American populations will represent the majority of all children by as soon as 2023.

But the elderly are growing fast too. New Mexico’s 60-year-old plus population is now 18 percent and in by 2025 is projected to top 30 percent of the population. Elders are picking sun belt states like New Mexico to live. As demographer William H. Frey put it a few years ago for The Brookings Institute: “The aging of the baby boom generation makes pre-seniors this decade’s fastest growing age group, expanding nearly 50 percent in size from 2000 to 2010. Poised to create a “senior tsunami” beginning in 2011, this group will be more highly educated, have more professional women, and exhibit more household diversity than previous generations entering traditional retirement age.”

Who gets to pay for this senior tsunami? Of course the younger people who will soon represent the majority of this country. But this becomes a thorny question when it’s framed by the discourse about being broke.

We’re already telling the future bill payers that we can’t afford to educate this cohort of Americans (unless they amass unbelievable amounts of debt). Or we can’t afford to keep them healthy. And we can’t afford to invest in new ideas that create jobs for this growing group of people (even when we know the current structure of jobs won’t be enough).

This is backwards. We need a new social contract—a governing agreement—that promotes the idea that if we invest in young Latino, Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, then perhaps, just perhaps, they will agree to tax themselves enough to pay the bills for a society with a large population of older, whiter Americans. This social contract assumes the older population will, in turn, invest now in the future generations' promise.

If we as a nation think we are broke now, imagine what it will be like if the next generation refuses to pick up the tab.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s recent book, The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars, is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page




thechief's picture
Why should we care about the US Government if we are from "sovereign" governments? Let the US government fail. As long as we are smart enough to diversify our portfolio and not hold all of our assets in dollars. This could be the time for Native nations to thrive. If less asian/latino/african/white american kids are getting educated, good. That means that my children will have less competition. Maybe someday they will all be working for my grandchildren and paying taxes to my tribe.
gamma's picture
Trahant wrote "if we invest in young Latino, ... African Americans, Asian Americans...If we as a nation think we are broke now.." Whoa, whoa, whoa. WE as a nation? You are talking about a foreign country, America, that has always been aligned AGAINST Indian nations. Editorials like this make me depressed because they tell me that we have melted into the mainstream American community and stopped being Indian. Whatever happened to SOVEREIGNTY?
thechief's picture
Excellent point.
tmsyr11's picture
We've been broke since the start of the 1950s where the US Govt has been spending/borrowing/loaning money it doesn't even have, i.e. CREDIT. Isn't this what the definition of CREDIT is about: getting a car with money that belongs to somebody else where you don't have money to begin. Our whole US system was based on credit until the financial system collapse where the US Govt. was in financial collusion with Financiers, banks, private sector agents, foreign interests where finances were established out of thin on the assumption the credit and backing was going to be there based on investments, advancements etc. by regular American Joe's and Jane's. Where is the money that Joe and Jane invested? They lost it because banks and financiers, US Govt. officials have look the other way... Considering that foreign interests have a large stake in America's debt, the United States may ultimately have to consider another foreign entity of sorts - MEXICO - to bail the United States out. Unfortunately, this will meaning allowing 20+ million Mexicans (foreign nationalists) to become 'US Citizens' and become the Hispanic (only Hispanic/Latino) VOICE as Democratic Socialists intent on looking out for Hispanic interests while playing Allegiance to all of Central and South America. Where does this leave the legitimate American Indian concerns/interests/treaties/....'sovereignty'? I'm sorry but if American Indian tribes THINK they will be better treated by US Domestic Policies, geared favorably to a powerful Hispanic voice and Washington/State/local cacus particularly in the Southwest/Western United States, then my request is YOU need to stop watching re-runs of 'Dances with Wolves'. In One Generation or 10-15 years from now, be looking for a North American Alliance (thanks in large part to Barrack Obama policies) where the wealth and distribution will be continued to be shared with FOREIGN INTERESTS and the political influence/wealth of Hispanic voters (particularly those with surnames of LOPEZ, MARTINEZ, GOMEZ, etc. The North American Indian Tribes will once more be sucked into transformation, but this could be the end and further demise of host Indian tribes and their people. Sorry.....
tmsyr11's picture
Interesting to watch the Obama Administrations handling of furthering or advancing the retirement age in the United States particularly if you consider the Statistics of longevity of life between the different races and groups: white, black, hispanics, natives, etc. In most cases, white people live longer and if non-whites die before they get their share of US GOvt. Social Security checks in return, then the greater the returns to white people that live their life-span. There is money, but the Barrack Obama Administration says one thing but does totally the opposite in public policy that will hurt the Indian Nations more in the long run and to their future. Barrack Obama can promise the world to American Indians, but consider now the Budget Debate and the use of US dollars being given to Brazil to help Brazil drill for their Oil to be sold to the United States in return for more US dollars. Consider the Free Trade Agreements with Foreign Countries where for example, China charges the United States Tarriffs, BUT the United States DOES NOT charge tarriffs whatsoever! There is money, BUT political interests in foreign nationals and the Goal of establishing a North American Alliance where even more world money will be spread but not rightfully shared with host Indian Governments. If anything, it is about time for host Indian Governments to stop believing Demo-cains or Republo-crats (Particularly Barrack Obama) and realize where the US will be in one generation. The clock is ticking.....tick tock tick tock....
gamma's picture
It is dangerous to bracket Indians together with the races that populate America, as Mark Trahant does. I see this to be an increasing trend. Example, we have the SACNAS - Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, and I keep hearing complaints from Mexicans at the society's annual conference that when Chicano students can do well, why don't Indian students do half as well as them? Whenever you lump together Indians with the races that populate America, Indians always lose. Our histories are different, our cultures are different, our circumstances are different, our nations are different. We are also setting ourselves up as a zero-sum game every time someone brackets us with other races. I see Indians supporting illegal Mexicans in Utah. We have no business to intervene unless it affects our sovereignty. It is a mistake to see Mexicans as our allies. They are not our allies - they see themselves as loyal to either Mexico and/or America. Given half a chance, they will sell us for a song. Trahant has also shown in his essay that he does not understand or choses to ignore the concept of Indian sovereignty. We need to stop caring about America, a country that has conquered us, nearly destroyed us and continues to destroy us. We need to focus on OUR people and OUR nations. We need to stop honoring the American flag at our powwows and need to start thinking of ourselves as sovereign (if we are to become truly sovereign).
wanbli's picture
Mr. Tahant, again I will say to you and others as the Ochiti Sakowin Tetuan Oyate Treaty Counsel Consultant, home on Pine Ridge, SD. The Oppressor, the "US Empire" will never free the oppressed or they're construct of legalize human genocide of intrinsic authentic red sovereign traditional governance and red peoples. I would like to be like you and believe that the US would but the truth and reality they can't, its up to those that really still believe in the Good Old Red Ways that humanized and naturalized life. No doubt you have a good mind and an excellent writer but you still and forever like all of your relatives, who are the unrepresented majority of all red people, who you do not know yet, and haven't talk too, will tell you, those authentic grassroots’ red people's who are fighting and doing more with no resources or remedies from the US treasury of first nation wealth: the authentic fight of Truth, Justice, Freedom and the authentic liberation from Imperialist authoritarian rule of domination at every human reality under the enslavement of colonial dominion of human life. This is a Spiritual War, so your words must match those that are the “Spirit of Red Truth and Justice” to the victims “The Oppressed” of the Imperialist Colonized Political, Religious and economical genocide that is happen to all First Nation’s Peoples of Turtle Island before “Earth, Heaven, and the Human Race with Creator”! That’s if your going to be with Wanbldi Gleska!