The Cost of Doing Nothing

Every homeowner knows that unless we tend to the house, the roof and the garden regularly, bigger problems will arise, costing more than original upkeep.

We know that if we skip painting a wooden house every decade or so, eventually the wood will rot and require not just painting but entire replacement. We know that doing nothing leads to bigger costs down the road.

What if we were to look at our society as we do our houses? Are we investing in keeping our society strong for the future? This question is fundamental.

Where do we stand? We’ve missed decades of investment in infrastructure, like bridges and roads that we all use — private citizens and businesses. We seem to be lacking when it comes to education, especially in this state. We no longer rank among the best countries in the world when considering hunger or poverty. How long can we afford to do so little?

For example, a quarter of our 600,000 bridges are classified by the Department of Transportation as deficient or functionally obsolete. Spending on infrastructure has fallen to its lowest level in more than 60 years. We now rank 16th in the world, according to the World Economic Forum, in infrastructure quality.

We used to be a leader. Our decaying roads and transport systems are costing us $129 billion a year in vehicle operations and travel delays, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. Oh, and that cost will grow each year we wait to do something.

How about a different example? Education. A high school dropout costs society on average $292,000 over the lifetime of the dropout. This is according to a study at Northwestern University, which compared typical dropouts with typical graduates. Dropouts cost taxpayers more in spending on unemployment support, food stamps and incarceration.

On top of that, it costs the actual dropout about $10,000 in lost annual income, compared with the high school graduate. A dropout is 63 times more likely to end up in jail than a college graduate — and twice as likely to end up in poverty.

In Moore County, 14 percent of those over the age of 25 lack high school degrees. The graduation rate is 88 percent in Moore County.

The issues of hunger, education and poverty are interlinked. High levels of hunger or food insecurity cost more than $165 billion when you consider how the hunger leads to lost economic productivity, more expensive public education and avoidable health care costs, according to another study. On top of that, SNAP (food stamps) costs more than $90 billion a year.

Finally, there is the cost of poverty.

One academic report for the National Poverty Center looked at the cost to society as a whole. The report says that if we eliminate childhood poverty, we would boost our economy by half a trillion dollars, or 4 percent of GDP. Twenty million kids in America rely on school meal programs. In the northern corner of our little county of Moore, about 90 percent of students at two schools are from homes with income so meager they qualify for free or reduced lunch.

We can spend a lot of time blaming the previous generation, or the other side of the aisle. But that’s just a distraction from uniting over the need to do something. Because doing nothing might just end up costing us more in the long run.

Each of us can choose to do something. Find an organization you are passionate about. Maybe it is helping the Northern Moore Family Resource Center build a center in Robbins for the poorest part of our county to get pre-K education, GED education and financial literacy. Maybe it is helping the Food Bank tackle feeding the hungry. Or helping Habitat build homes and boost financial empowerment. There are plenty to choose from.

I’ve just pledged to do something. That is to serve on the Public Education Foundation board and work with the task of raising funding to replenish some of the $2 million private grant that just expired. The grant aimed to support education in the areas of STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math. These skills are fundamentally important to the success of our children in the next generation for building bridges and schools, and for calculating data and forecasting.

In fact, 16 of the 30 fastest-growing careers demand serious math and science education.

We cannot wait for leaders to work harder to raise the ranking of our state and county in quality of education, or improving infrastructure, or tackling hunger and poverty. There is a serious cost that we will all share if we do too little, or indeed, nothing.

I encourage those of comfortable means: Find your charity, be it education, hunger or poverty, and invest. Invest your capital and your time. The next generation will thank you.

-Marybeth Sandell

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