Sheriff Ahmed

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Most Americans expect their children to have a better life and standard of living than themselves. Whether it was the impoverished parents arriving in Ellis Island, the family who survived the struggles of the Great Depression, or the GIs who were returning home after the horrors of WWII, their hopes and dreams were all the same, and centered around the wish of a better life for their children. I suppose that is true for any parent in any country.

But the outcome doesn’t depend just on the efforts of the parents. I believe it also depends upon the actions and policies of the government and the communities.

The 1862 Homestead Act gave citizens for a small fee 160 acres of federal land if they agreed to farm and live on that land. After the Great Depression, the New Deal (1933-1939) introduced government-directed programs to restore prosperity to Americans. And the GI Bill of 1944 provided servicemen returning from WWII with funds for education, government-backed loans, unemployment allowances, and job-finding assistance. All of these programs helped people reach their dreams and secure a better life for their children.

It must be noted that because of racism, these programs were not offered equally to everyone. And today in our society we see the outcome of that selective application of opportunities, benefits and resources.

Today parents lament that their children may not have a better lifestyle than what they enjoyed. Why is it so? There are many job openings in larger cities, but employers cannot find enough workers. In contrast, the job scarcity in smaller cities ripple down the entire community and negatively impacts all livelihood, and also the funding for the school district. It is not feasible for entire communities to move to the big city for jobs. This feeds into the frustration and angst of that community.

I believe some foresight and planning can avoid this scenario. The collective leadership of the government, local city hall, and the business community all need to have the will to make some changes and form partnerships. In addition, each individual family must also make some proactive decisions backed by action to adapt to the changes.

For example, I was involved in establishing a manufacturing site in Singapore, and later also in China. In Singapore the Economic Development Board (EDB) offered us advice, tax incentives, location, help securing workers, and also navigating local rules and regulations. In return, we partnered with local universities and suppliers, and adopted a strategy to run the factory with local talent. In China, a similar set of deliberations with the trade ministry, and partnership with the local city government, resulted in a successful win-win outcome.

Many people complain that good paying manufacturing jobs have disappeared from the USA, ostensibly because other countries stole our jobs. It is true that globalization flattened the playing field, and someone living across the ocean with a much lower wage now can get the same work done at a much lower cost. However, the fruits of that lower cost benefitted all of us.

The lower cost propelled profitability of the USA company, which in turn benefitted the stockholders. The lower cost of goods also allowed all of our population to increase our standard of living, and made many things affordable. This also fueled the march towards indiscriminate consumption just because things were so cheap. All the seasonal items on the market, and the proliferation of storage sheds, attest to that widespread consumption.

What didn’t seem to happen was for local governments and communities to think through the long-range impact of global changes, understand what that means for that community, and to take proactive steps to address that. There was nothing stopping us from strategizing around digital economy, globalizing commerce, and appropriate job-skill training.

The “for hire” signs of Amazon fulfillment centers offer $17 an hour, but just a couple of hours away from the Twin Cities, I see communities where the downtown street is dead, small businesses are being shuttered, and small farms are being sold. This calls for partnerships between the state, corporations, and local communities. The state could make arrangements with Amazon to set up that fulfillment center in smaller communities, help with short-term tax credits, build up partnerships with the business community, set up job-training centers in local schools, etc. A proactive forward-looking set of actions could go a long way toward assuring the vitality of many rural and small communities.

I hear we can’t do that, because we are a free enterprise society, and doing this would be anti-capitalism. But not doing something proactive like this ends up costing us all a lot more money and wasted talent. Because with the lack of jobs, we taxpayers do end up paying for all kinds of social costs for the population which ends up in hard times. People do not want handouts, they want fair jobs. Unequal distribution of jobs, opportunities and resources end up increasing the gap between the haves and the have-nots, and widens the rural-city divide, which in turn fuels divisiveness and resentment.

For the sake of national cohesion, parity in sharing the fruits of national resources, and improved lifestyle for everyone, it is high time that we all demand, support and participate in more active planning to guarantee equal and fair access to opportunities for all.

Sheriff Ahmed is a 35-year resident of Savage who contributes to Community Voices.

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