America is in a hole.
In the gravest threat to our economy since the Great Depression, we are facing rising unemployment; soaring food, energy, and health care costs; growing debts; a shrinking middle class; and widening inequality. To help us climb out, President-elect Barack Obama plans to craft a $700 billion recovery package, with about two-thirds of that spent on infrastructure projects. This is promising, to be sure, but we need even more.
If we do this right, the Obama administration's stimulus package can lay the groundwork for a healthier and more prosperous nation, not just in the months ahead, but for generations to come. Big problems require big, bold solutions and this crisis requires nothing less than the re-imagining of the American city. Let me explain: for decades, public policy has been to pour money into new highways to far-off suburbs, enabling even more sprawl and making us even more dependent on our cars. That kind of thinking is a non-starter. America needs smarter, more targeted spending (in people, places, and projects) that gets a solid return on our investment and actually strengthens communities too often left behind.
But how do we do that?
First, we need to invest where people live. More than two-thirds of Americans -- including the vast majority of the nation's poor -- live in the top 100 metro areas. These major cities and the older, inner-ring suburbs that surround them are the economic and social engines of the nation. We get the best return on our investment by focusing our efforts on these urban areas, rebuilding their transit systems, schools, and even sewers, and preparing their workforce for a global economy that increasingly values technological know -- how more than broad shoulders.
When we invest in public transit, we connect working families to the good jobs they need.
When we lay new broadband lines in poor communities, we can virtually overnight make competitive waves of entrepreneurs and small-business owners who have been cut off from the digital revolution.
When we encourage the opening of new grocery stores in communities abandoned long ago by big, chain retailers, we put people to work, improve their health, increase their energy, productivity, and life expectancy, and revive lethargic labor markets.
And when we break ground on any construction project, we can set aside one or two percent of the cost to create job training programs. Developing a pipeline of ready and able workers is vital -- and a wonderful chance to expand opportunity for low-income young people.
But none of this will happen if we spend the stimulus money the same way we've been doing for years.
We need to make this chance count. This is not altruism but good public policy. Smart, targeted infrastructure projects are precisely the stimulus we need to help millions of Americans realize their potential, contribute to our nation's economic output, and raise the next generation to do the same.