Extension’s Future in an Age of Austerity

Speaking as an Extension professional, I think there are two ways of looking at the future, one deeply pessimistic, the other guardedly optimistic.

Rockwell's county agent

Normal Rockwell's Famed Painting of a County Agent at Work

Despite my genetic propensity for pessimism, I remain optimistic, albeit guardedly.  Yes, we live in an age of fiscal austerity, and, yes, the way this austerity ultimately plays out raises several disturbing questions about the prospects for our long-term organizational survival.

Even so, as I’ve mentioned before, I think the sheer scope of austerity-related policies that emerge from congressional and state legislative wrangling over the next decade will only underscore the value of Cooperative Extension.

These austerity measures undoubtedly will exert an immense influence not only on the American economy but also on the U.S. political and public policy agendas.  Just how much was reflected in a recent New Republic column.

New Republic correspondent Thomas Edsall cites Congressional Budget Office estimates, which reveal that without major budgetary reform, debt is expected to triple by 2035, exceeding 135 percent of GDP.  As Edsall observes, the sheer magnitude of federal debt underscores the difficulties that we and future generations face.

If we were careful planners—and, of course, we’re not—we would begin by saving about 5 percent of GDP each year. Next year, for example, we’d have to make tax increases and spending cuts add up to about $700 billion. Over time, the total costs would prove immense: raising everyone’s tax bill by at least 25 percent (and probably a lot more than that) or eliminating about 20 percent of the federal budget (the approximate current size of Social Security, for example).

My personal impression: We Extension professionals will endure immense budgetary hardship over the next few years.  We won’t emerge from this unscathed.  But we WILL survive. 

Why? Because Cooperative Extension is far better equipped than other public entities to operate on the drastically altered public policy landscape that ultimately emerges.  

What will be the most important factor accounting for this survival? Our longstanding organizational emphasis on dialogue and empowerment as opposed to the top/down bureaucratic approach that once underscored public policy.

The public policy agenda that emerges from all this fiscal wrangling will place considerably greater emphasis on personal empowerment, namely on the role citizens must serve as active partners in social change and advancement.

That is why I think public policymakers at all levels of government ultimately will acquire a newfound appreciation for our unique assets.

Yes, there are some things we will have to do differently, and, yes, new technology, notably social media, will play an integral part in the leaner organizational structure that ultimately emerges. But the Cooperative Extension that emerges will be a considerably leaner organization better equipped to help Americans through the myriad challenges associated with this era of material limitations and reduced expectations.

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