12/10/2010 02:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Hispanic Activists Must Fight to Eliminate the Nation's Debt

No policy issue poses a greater threat to the long-term prosperity of American children and the nation overall than our growing national debt. The agreement on taxes struck this week does not improve the future picture of our debt, even though it is urgently needed in the short term. Providing tax benefits to wealthy Americans is wasteful spending of resources that the government does not have. However, we also cannot address our long-term debt problem while millions of American workers, especially low-income minority workers, are jobless and the economy is heading toward a second recession. When this tax deal is finally behind us and the economy is stabilized, we must all begin to seriously consider our nation's long-term debt problem.

The prospects of our children are at stake in this debate. A recent international student assessment showed that the U.S. is far behind other nations in preparing its children to compete in a global economy, and an increasing number of kids are growing up in poverty, including 1.2 million more Latino children since 2007. We clearly are not doing enough today to make the right investments in children. Even worse, we're saddling children with a crippling national debt that threatens to erode their ability to afford a college education, get a good job, own their own home, and enjoy a dignified retirement.

Several comprehensive plans that were introduced in recent weeks successfully turned the question of whether we should address the national debt to how we should address it. With the national debt swelling to $13 trillion this year, many now concede that we are on a dangerous course and must turn the ship.

Like most debates in Washington, this one has its fair share of partisan and ideological posturing. Some have staked out positions to reflexively oppose cuts to entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Others argue against raising taxes on anyone. Yet most realize that seriously tackling our debt will require some balance of revenue increases, benefit cuts to entitlement programs, and spending cuts in federal programs.

Traditionally, in difficult fiscal climates, Hispanic advocates like the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) have fought hard to protect investments in federal programs that provide important human needs and social protections for poor working Latino families. Fighting against cuts in vital areas of the federal budget has been an absolute necessity, especially given that federal programs which serve politically disenfranchised Latinos--and immigrants in particular--have long been targets for lawmakers seeking "savings" in the budget. Recall that the 1996 welfare reform law was financed by a then-projected $60 billion in cuts to public health and other benefits for legal immigrants and their family members. That financing mechanism was initially placed on the table by the Clinton administration. In tough fiscal times, both parties have historically targeted areas of the budget with politically weak constituencies. We face no less of a challenge going into the budget fight next year, and that's one critical reason to pay close attention to this debate.

Admittedly, the upcoming budget debate is different from what we've experienced before in at least one important respect: never have the stakes been as high for Latinos. Latinos, the fastest-growing population in the United States, add more than half of all new workers to the U.S. labor force monthly and now compose more than 20% of American school children. Deferring the debt issue to the next generation invariably means higher taxes, higher inflation, and less government investment for many of our children. No responsible parent would willingly choose passing down substantial sums of debt to their children over making sacrifices. But if we don't deal with this problem now, that is exactly the outcome we can expect.

There is no question that we must protect American children from the harm that budget cuts can cause in areas of critical human need. That ought to be a principle that the president and congressional leaders agree on from the outset of any debt reduction negotiation. What's more, we can and must fight for more social investments in our children. It would be a mistake to believe that substantially lower investment in our children is a necessary precondition to achieving a balanced, fair, and effective debt reduction plan. President Clinton's successful 1993 budget plan included investments in working poor families among the spending cuts and tax increases. That year, the Earned Income Tax Credit was expanded for low-income working poor families, proving that such investment can result from an effort that forces tough choices and gets our fiscal house in order.

At the same time, Latino advocates must be unequivocal about addressing as much of our national debt within this generation as possible. Achieving these ends and engaging seriously and credibly in this debate means that we must take a hard look at proposals and support a fair and balanced plan that, yes, may include cuts to entitlement programs, but must also place on the table tax increases and targeted discretionary spending cuts. In taking this balanced approach we concede nothing. Indeed, we plan to fight vigorously for those who cannot bargain for themselves at the policy table: our future children, families, and workers.