By Kelly McCutchen
New Census Bureau data ranks Georgia’s poverty rate as third highest in the nation. Combined with the state’s next-to-last ranking in personal income growth over the last decade, this is cause for concern. Georgians can either be distracted by divisive class warfare or focus on breaking down the barriers to economic opportunity.
Transportation is a good place to start. Transit should focus first on giving the poor and disabled access to jobs and education. That requires an affordable transit network that matches the “everywhere to everywhere” commuting patterns of metro areas that developed in the age of the automobile.
Education is the best pathway to opportunity. Nothing should stand between a child and a good education, yet all too often the needs of the poor are second to the interests of the status quo. Low-income students are often trapped in schools that don’t meet their needs. We have some wonderful schools in Georgia, but even good schools can’t be all things to all students. All parents deserve options. Charter schools, special needs scholarships and tax credit scholarships have changed the lives of countless Georgia students and should be expanded.
From Pre-K all the way to universities, technology is on the cusp of revolutionizing education. This promises to personalize education for every student and make our highest quality teachers and learning resources available to even the most rural counties. Focusing on making high-speed broadband Internet access available throughout Georgia will open up this world of opportunity for every child.
Georgia must identify and remove barriers to entry-level jobs. It’s no secret that behind closed doors, big businesses don’t necessarily object to government regulations because they serve as barriers to entry. Professional licensing is similar. Existing industries advocate for arbitrary barriers to new entrants. In the 1950s, just one person in every 20 needed a license to work. Today, it’s one in three. Georgia has the 18th most burdensome professional licensing requirements in the nation, according to a recent report by the Institute for Justice.
These licensing requirements limit opportunities for low- and moderate-income workers requiring lengthy – and costly – training. Georgia successfully eliminated the absurd licensing requirements for African hair braiding several years ago. Clearly, though, with 15 occupations requiring more education and experience than an Emergency Medical Technician, much work remains.
Unexpected health care expense can wipe out the savings of middle-income families. While large corporations receive generous tax deductions for their health insurance purchases, the many unemployed Georgians and those working at small businesses that don’t offer health insurance must pay a significant tax penalty. This penalty can often add 30-40 percent to the price of health insurance, meaning these individuals who need the protection of health insurance the most cannot afford it. The federal government must rid the tax code of this inequity.
Low-income Georgians injured by medical negligence are also out of luck. Our current court system was designed to compensate these individuals for their injuries, but in reality less than 2 percent of victims receive compensation. The odds are worse for the poor and elderly. This lack of access to justice can put people out of work needlessly if they can’t afford rehabilitation. Our medical malpractice system is failing and must be replaced with a system that better serves injured patients and all Georgians.
Access to justice, good education and good jobs shouldn’t be controversial. But the reality is that whether it is corporate cronyism or political cronyism, entrenched interests will fight hard to retain their edge. The key to America’s success is its dynamism and the reality that anyone can succeed with hard work and perseverance. As many economists have noted, the free enterprise system has lifted more people out of poverty than any other economic system in history. But it cannot work if regulations, taxes and a lack of freedom stifle economic opportunity. It is incumbent upon this generation to keep the American Dream alive, not just for the poor, but for us all.