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Lisa Longo Headshot

What If

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1982, I was graduating high school. Like millions of other students all over America, I was hoping for a spot in one of our prestigious colleges for Public Policy or Teaching. Waiting for the letter to come, it was all I could think about. I was hoping to go to either Washington, DC or Chicago to study Public Policy before entering public service.

I was one of the lucky ones, with my nearly perfect GPA I would qualify for a subsidy, as long as I worked in public service for at least five years, my student loans would be paid off. Since President Kennedy had established these schools in 1964, the year I was born, they had become the most sought after in the nation.

No one could forget that day in Dallas in 1963, but we were all so glad that the president had recovered. His administration had gone on to be one of the most progressive in history, and he was easily reelected. He and his brother continued to work on social issues, even now, 14 years after he left office, the former president was still working on social justice issues with his brother, who had succeeded him as president. President Bobby Kennedy had been the one to change our health care system, now every U.S. citizen had health coverage.

They, along with Dr. Martin Luther King, continued to be our moral compass. They gave us our inspiration to do better, dream bigger, and remember to always ask, what can we do for our country? Dr. King had become instrumental in passing the Civil Rights Act, and had become Secretary of Education under JFK. His strategy to develop Academies of Learning, utilizing the legislation passed by the first President Kennedy, had brought funding to struggling poor and urban schools.

Some elections had so many candidates, President Bobby had instituted Public Service Ads for all candidates, along with the 1970 FCC decision to not allow any advertising on a news program, these two things were seen as revolutionizing our elections.

First, all candidates would be allotted up to 120 minutes to use in the three months prior to the election and no one was permitted to buy advertising. In addition, the ban on advertising during news programs was seen as essential to protecting the integrity and objectivity of our journalists. After teaching and other public service, journalism, especially investigative journalism, was considered essential to the protection of our democratic process.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan ran for president, but he was defeated, and the White House continued to be held by the Democrats. Former Governor Reagan had talked about cutting back on government spending, and had put out his idea to replace worker pensions with self-funded stock accounts, a risky proposition for American workers, who were loyal and dedicated to employers due to the knowledge that this would be rewarded with pensions and excellent health care. Many people felt this was instrumental in his loss in 1980.

American manufacturing was strong, due to the ability of employers to keep experienced and well-educated workers. U.S. schools were among the best in the world, and the envy of many other countries. The crime rate was low due to some of the strictest gun laws in the world, and the number of people incarcerated continued to drop due to strong social programs that had all but eradicated poverty.

Currently the United States was embarking on a national strategy to reduce the use of fossil fuels and convert to renewable energy. The new president had put solar panels on the White House, sparking a new national "race." As the Space Race had before, this new race was creating jobs and even new areas of study at our national academies. Funding was strong for research due to our innovative tax policy, one that rewarded companies for creating jobs but insisted they be a part of funding our common good programs. Taxes were seen as a sign of success, and businesses proudly paid their share as well as dividends to shareholders.

The minimum wage in 1982 was $12.50, and the mandated cost of living increases along with the limits on corporate deductions of excessive compensation had kept our workforce strong and poverty low. Police, firefighters and teachers were among our most respected professions, and police were often seen walking in neighborhoods, committed to knowing the people they served.

Our military was strong, and the legislation passed by the second President Kennedy, which limited the amount Congress could be paid to that which we paid our military was seen as protecting those who served us. It also had the unexpected benefit of ensuring turnover in Congress.

Last but not least, national pride and citizenship was at an all time high. American's were proud of their nation, committed to continuing the progressive movement started by President Kennedy and reaching the goals of equality and empowerment he taught us.

Thirty years later we would look back and be proud of what we accomplished. By 2012 we had almost fully converted to renewable energy in residential homes and our schools and municipal buildings, saving taxpayers trillions and allowing us to build better education programs at lower cost. Many businesses were utilizing the new technology and our national debt had been eradicated. U.S. bonds were still seen as the best investment in the world, though now they were used for the protection of our National Parks.

With almost full employment, American's were now being offered early retirement, and unlike other nations that had instituted programs of austerity; cutting government programs in order to lower taxes for the wealthy, American's enjoyed a secure economy based upon investment not enrichment of the few at the expense of the many.

Every now and then someone would write a novel about what might have happened had President Kennedy died that day in Dallas, or if the attempts on Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King had been successful. These novels were often almost apocalyptic, talking about a world where the minimum wage was below the poverty line, schools were overcrowded and in bad repair. Workers had no pensions or security. Teachers were underpaid and police were no longer trusted members of communities. It was a horrific version of what America could be, a haunting what if, a warning and a call to action.