Monthly Archives: February 2010

The Deficit: A New Charge to Cooperative Extension Educators

Following my previous discussion about the looming deficit crisis and its implications, I’m sharing  a column that I mined this morning off Worldnet Daily, a conservative Web site.

To his immense credit, the writer, columnist and erstwhile presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, is speaking as an American rather than as a partisan political commentator.   His advice should be heeded by all public intellectuals and policy makers irrespective of their political convictions.

As Buchanan stresses, something must be done immediately to rein in our ballooning federal deficits.  Otherwise, the consequences will be dire: China’s decision last December to unload $45 billion of its $790 billion in T-bills is likely only a harbinger of the economic upheaval that could follow if a solution is not found, he says.

Even so, a workable solution seems more elusive than ever given the strong likelihood of the hardened political gridlock that will follow 2010 midterm elections, Buchanan says.

One thing is certain: The budget must — and ultimately will — be cut and one immediate consequence regardless of what forms the cuts take will be a reduced federal domestic presence for the foreseeable future. 

Laying gloom aside for a moment, I will say that in the aftermath of this reduced federal presence, grassroots, self-empowerment agencies such as Extension may be called upon to serve an invaluable role.

Actually, a number of factors in addition to the deficit likely contribute to this trend.  In the last couple of decades, policymakers —state and federal lawmakers as well as most municipal leaders — have been forced to rethink the way they serve their audiences. Many causes account for this change in thinking — advances in communications technologies, the rise of the global economy, declining tax bases and rapid social change, to name only a few.

Whatever the causes, the sort of top/down bureaucratic approach used throughout most of the last century to address domestic has been deemed unworkable, not only by conservatives but also by many centrist Third Way advocates, such as former President Bill Clinton and former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair.  The worsening deficit crisis will only work to underscore this reality, I believe. 

Indeed, these trends already have given rise to a new domestic policy approach — one built on a foundation of dialogue and empowerment between the various levels of government and the people they serve.  In a sharp departure from earlier forms of domestic policy, individuals and groups traditionally served by domestic programs are being called upon to address change directly rather than waiting for things happen to them.

This is why I’m convinced that Extension is especially well equipped to fill a larger role in the future.

We have the skill sets to match these new policy requirements: We are knowledge enablers who use dialogue and personal empowerment to serve our diverse audiences.   Along with knowledge, we provide a practical understanding of how this knowledge can be used to improve our clients’ lives. 

Yes, I believe Cooperative Extension educators have a new charge to keep in the 21st century.   The newfound appreciation for dialogue and empowerment that inevitably will follow this crisis presents us with a unique opportunity to show how our traditional emphasis on practical knowledge is as value today as it was in the early 20th century.

The “Lean Years:” A New Mission for Cooperative Extension?

A lot of what I do as a member of Alabama Extension’s Marketing Team is to think out loud, usually after digesting an article or op-ed about a topic that raises major implications for the Cooperative Extension mission.

The New York Times’s David Brooks’s most recent op-ed is one example — a piece appropriately named “The Lean Years.”

Writing about this severe recession, he paints an especially gloomy picture of the years of hard slogging that lie ahead for millions of Americans, particularly men and young people, before some semblance of normality returns.

He cites an essay in The Atlantic, which reports that almost a fifth of all U.S. men between 25 and 54 are without jobs — the highest such figure since the labor bureau began collecting and reporting these numbers in 1948.

America’s young people are also being disproportionally affected by this downturn.  Brooks cites a gloomy statistic from a previous severe recession:  College grads who entered the job market in 1981 earned 25 percent less than those who entered in more prosperous periods.  And this earnings gap persists for decades.  Over their lifetimes, recession kids will earn approximately $100,000 less than those hired during more auspicious periods.

Brooks fears that these trends will exact a heavy social cost among men and young people alike.

Among chronically unemployed men, this effect is often reflected by enhanced levels of alcoholism and child abuse, with millions of unemployed men sustaining what Brooks describes as “debilitating blows to their identity.”

Young people are also psychologically altered, less likely to switch jobs later in their career, even when greater opportunity beckons.

The burgeoning federal deficits will only contribute to further fraying. Deficits will command roughly 11 percent of the country’s entire economic input this year, leaving little room for expanded domestic initiatives. 

As Brooks observes, the social fabric, which has served throughout U.S. history to mitigate the effects of hard times, has begun to fray.   

These hard realties present Cooperative Extension educators with a challenge.

As one long-tenured Extension county coordinator related to me several months ago, Cooperative Extension has served a useful role within the last century providing people, often people on the margins of society, with basic skills to cope in difficult times.  The coming lean years, which will be characterized by both chronic unemployment and underemployment as well as fewer federal domestic initiatives, present Americans with a unique set of challenges  — challenges that Cooperative Extension System is especially well-equipped to meet.

Working through its 4-H youth empowerment, home gardening, nutrition and community develop programs, Cooperative Extension educators are poised to build and new and enduring legacy of self-empowerment.  How?  By providing the most hard-pressed among us with the vital coping skills they require to endure the next few years.  By empowering them, we also lend a hand in helping restore this nation’s vital, but frayed, social fabric.