Planning for the U.S. in 2050

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At a time when Washington struggles to reach agreement even on short-term decisions, a conference Friday focused some badly needed attention on longer-term trends and policy choices that could shape the country over the next three decades and beyond.

“US 2050,” an initiative of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation and the Ford Foundation, commissioned 31 papers that were released in conjunction with the conference.

These papers, by a diverse array of experts, discuss what the Peterson Foundation describes as “a range of topics related to demographics, poverty, labor economics, macroeconomics, political science and sociology to develop a comprehensive view of the nation’s economic and fiscal future.”

As this initiative underscores, the United States faces some difficult fiscal, economic and demographic challenges that are interrelated. Yet elected officials in Washington have largely ignored these challenges and — in the case of problems like the nation’s unsustainable fiscal path — made things even worse.

“America is a rapidly changing nation,” said Michael A. Peterson, CEO of the Peterson Foundation. “By 2050, our country will be much older and more diverse, and a range of social, economic and technological transformations will shape how Americans live and work. We must ensure that our nation is prepared and on a sustainable path to meet these dynamic challenges.”

Peterson added: “US 2050 helps us make sense of the complex trends underway, and provides important insights into the best policies to build a better future and quality of life for all Americans.”

In a written statement Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, stressed the need to reduce economic inequality while planning for the decades ahead: “We must be thinking long-term about the serious challenges our nation faces today or we will not be in the position to provide the American dream to anyone, let alone be capable of taking care of our most vulnerable citizens, a critical function of the government.”

Also in conjunction with the US 2050 initiative, the Pew Research Center released some worrisome findings from a new survey on what Americans believe their country will be like in 2050. The survey found considerable pessimism about the decades ahead, with most respondents predicting a weaker economy, a growing income divide, a degraded environment and a broken political system.

David Wessel, senior fellow and director of The Hutchins Center at the Brookings Institution, wrote a summary of the US 2050 research. Wessel explains, for example, how policy decisions on issues like immigration, education and health care will determine U.S. living standards three decades from now:

“Over long stretches of time, the pace at which the economy grows reflects the pace at which productivity — output per hour of work — increases and the pace at which the workforce grows. More people working — higher rates of labor force participation among natives or more immigrant workers — will yield faster economic growth. More investments in people — in education and health care, particularly for today’s children — will yield faster growth in productivity and in average income per person.”

Wessel’s summary also included key points about how the country’s fiscal health will depend on trends in aging, health, productivity growth, labor force participation and immigration.

“The more tax-paying workers, the easier it will be to pay for retirement and health benefits promised to the growing number of elderly people. . . . ” he wrote. “The faster productivity grows, the faster wages and profits will rise, giving the nation more resources to pay for those retirement and health benefits for the old while delivering rising living standards for the working-age population and their children.”

Funded by the Peterson Foundation and the Ford Foundation, US 2050 provided $1.5 million in grand awards in its first year. The initiative plans additional projects that will build on the research done so far.

The 31 new research papers and Wessel’s summary provide an enormous amount of information and insight that deserves attention from elected officials, political candidates, business leaders, educators, journalists and others who care about the nation’s future and how best to plan for it.

Disclosure note: The Concord Coalition receives funding from the Peterson Foundation.

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