Leppert: Public health and education are infrastructure, too

August 12, 2017

On Sept. 19, 2014, Doug Oberhelman gave a speech to the Economic Club of Indiana in his role as CEO of Caterpillar Inc. He has since retired, but his speech made an impression on me.

The topic of his talk that day was in part about preparing America’s young people for life after school. He made the comment that a company is only as good as “the intelligence of its people.” He went on to say that, when a company cannot find the necessary people who are educated enough to then be hired and trained for a job, it is a “supply deficiency” just like any other. I agree.

Since 2014, our unemployment rate has continued to fall, and with it the scarcity of a qualified workforce has predictably grown. This is a problem.

It is a problem with our infrastructure.

Just as a company is only as good as “the intelligence of its people,” the same rule applies to “the health of its people.” And these two rules apply to our nation.

For our economy to perform well, our people need to be educated well, and they need to be physically, mentally and emotionally healthy enough to work. Too often this year, we have found ourselves arguing over the design of our health insurance market, and secondarily, the cost of health care for our nation. Not often enough has that conversation started from the real starting point: Americans simply need to be healthier.

Even if one doesn’t care about the health status of a neighbor nearby or far away, Americans, when asked, do not want other Americans to go without health care. Further, we want all Americans to be as healthy as we all can be. Again, even if this conclusion isn’t reached for humanitarian reasons, it should be for economic ones.

A healthy and educated populace actually is infrastructure. Yes, I want Americans to be intelligent and healthy, for myriad other reasons. However, it would be productive in our discourse if we would start the debate from the correct place. The view that the value of the health and education investment in others is somehow not valuable to all of us, prevents us from starting the debate from the right place.

Since the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and the lesser-known decision in San Antonio v. Rodriguez in 1973, public education as a constitutional right has been argued. It is not a constitutional right in the broadest sense, thanks to the 5-4 decision against that notion in the San Antonio case, though most Americans likely believe it to be.

And neither is health care. What many believe has occurred since the passage and implementation of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 is that many more Americans see health care as a right than did before. The argument about that in the political realm is largely behind us now. Calling Medicaid an entitlement as a defense against expanding or protecting it is also largely wasted energy now, regardless of a politician’s party.

So why bother arguing about it? It’s a very good question.

Once we accept the fact that Americans see health care and education as rights, it only makes sense to start our debate from the acknowledgement of it. But if it helps, it also makes good business sense.

Our roads, bridges and pipes are what most politicians immediately think of when we use the word “infrastructure.” It is time to broaden that definition. Investing in the infrastructure of our people is an even wiser investment. Context matters here. What good are great roads, anyway, if the people on them aren’t smart and healthy?•

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Leppert is a public and governmental affairs consultant in Indianapolis. He writes at HeartlandNow.com. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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