REPORTS & SURVEYS | JANUARY 1ST, 2006 | Steven A. Rosell, Isabella Furth, Heidi Gantwerk
Nearly every credible budget expert – left, right and center – agrees the United States faces some fundamental choices in the coming years, about the future of the country and the role the federal government should play in realizing that future. The last few decades have brought about dramatic changes: our population is aging as people live longer and have fewer children, while health care costs are skyrocketing. After years of unbalanced budgets, the government is $8 trillion in debt and counting. And as the baby-boom generation nears retirement the federal government will soon need billions of dollars more every year just to cover boomers’ Social Security and Medicare. These programs are a linchpin of the American social contract, but accelerating budget shortfalls are a warning signal that we must make some difficult choices – and soon.
It is increasingly vital for Americans to have a serious conversation about national priorities, entitlements, what we expect from the Federal government and what we are willing to pay to get it. If we as a nation face up to these challenges now, we can solve them. But the longer we wait, the fewer options we will have, and the greater the risk to our fiscal stability, our way of life and our children’s future.
Attempts to address the question of where to go from here must engage the public in a meaningful way. Any way forward, no matter how well thought out from a technical standpoint, will fail if it does not gain public support – and this is doubly true if it requires significant change. Incremental fixes may be possible without significant public engagement, but fundamental changes are not, and incremental fixes are not likely to be sufficient in this case.
But engaging the public and building public support and understanding for difficult choices is a challenge. Conventional wisdom tends to dismiss the public as polarized and apathetic, wanting it all but not willing to pay for it. And undoubtedly the complexity of the problem, combined with the unpleasant trade-offs required, breeds wishful thinking and denial. Leaders are not sure whether or how they can get reach the public on these issues, let alone what sorts of solutions the public would find acceptable if they did.
To help provide this insight to leaders and begin a broader process of public engagement, Viewpoint Learning joined with three organizations – the Brookings Institution, the Heritage Foundation, and the Concord Coalition – to create Facing Up to the Nation’s Finances. This initiative, conducted under the leadership of the Public Agenda and with funding from the Ford Foundation, has three goals:
Two public opinion research studies conclude that the public has little difficulty understanding the magnitude of the fiscal challenge facing the nation.