Millennium Mark Is a Good Time to Fix Our Anachronistic Systems

America’s September-to-June, seven-hour school day was designed a century ago for a nation where few mothers worked outside the home and farm families needed their sons and daughters for the summer harvest. That’s not the way America lives anymore. But few schools have adapted.

When Social Security was created during the Depression, an average American could expect to live to 61. So President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress, exhibiting a healthy sense of fiscal prudence, set the age for access to benefits at 65. Today, the life expectancy for an average American has reached 76. But Washington, fearful of the ever-growing gray lobby, has been too slow to raise the eligibility age in response.

These are but two of many ways in which the basic structures of our public institutions lag behind the modern realities of our social and economic life. Life moves quickly and governments, slowly; so some lag is inevitable. But with the economy humming, the federal treasury flush and no foreign threat impending, this may be a unique opportunity to catch up. As the United States takes stock on its last birthday of the 20th century, could there be a more appropriate goal than modernizing America for a new millennium?

A similar modernizing impulse offered “a lot of the motivation” for the sweeping reforms of the Progressive Era at the dawn of this century, notes historian John Milton Cooper. Progressives understood that the weak governments (both local and federal) of the late 19th century had been designed for a sparsely populated, agricultural America. Those feeble institutions proved woefully inadequate to the needs of the industrialized, urbanized nation America had become as this century began.


With great success, the Progressives updated the public institutions to better match the private realities--a quarter-century project that led them to crusades as varied as purifying municipal water supplies, launching settlement houses for immigrants and establishing the first federal regulatory agencies to rein in the railroads and safeguard the food supply.

Today, an equally varied and diverse roster of public institutions demands retrofitting. Almost anything Washington and the states do would benefit from scrutiny through this lens. But some targets offer obvious places to begin.

The schools. The school calendar is a monument to the capacity of institutions (especially those without real competition) to resist change. Today, three-fourths of women with children under 18 work at least part time out of the home. That’s created an enormous demand for safe, affordable child care. At the same time, anxiety about students’ academic performance has generated tremendous pressure for better results from the schools.

These twin concerns point toward a shared solution: lengthening the school day (and year) to provide both more instruction and more access to quality day care. Yet, as the Center for Policy Alternatives recently calculated, in only eight states do as many as one-third of the schools offer extended-day programs. (Los Angeles County, a trailblazing exception, will launch a $74-million all-day initiative this fall.) The same logic also argues for expanded preschool programs; yet these also remain too rare.


Immigration. Apart from the occasional backlash movement, few in government have stopped to consider that we are in the midst of the greatest wave of immigration since the first decade of the century. In the 1990s, the U.S. has been adding about 900,000 legal immigrants a year. Almost one American in 10 is now foreign-born, the highest level since the 1920s.

The good news is that today’s immigrants continue to move inexorably, generation by generation, into the American mainstream. As the National Immigration Forum reported late last week in a study by Pepperdine University’s Gregory Rodriguez, on measures such as home ownership, fluency in English and intermarriage, the new arrivals continue to make steady intergenerational progress.

While the process of assimilation “is still working, the pace and diversity and reach of modern-day immigration puts significant short-term strains on both the newcomers and their host communities,” noted Frank Sharry, the forum’s executive director. Yet Washington spends little to help either group adapt. Sharry’s answer: a federal block grant, tied to local government and even private contributions, that would fund English instruction, citizenship education and acculturation programs.

Wiring Washington. On a prototype Web site, students can now apply for education loans, check their eligibility--and even send Uncle Sam a change of address for the summer.

That could be the face of the future: Once privacy concerns are solved, more and more of our interaction with government could be conducted across the Internet. That offers the prospect of service that is simultaneously more rapid, more personalized and less expensive. And like private companies, government can move more of its vast purchasing activities online, allowing enormous savings and continued streamlining of the federal work force (which has shrunk by nearly 350,000 since 1993).

Largely through Vice President Al Gore’s “reinventing government” effort, the Clinton administration has moved steadily to exploit the new technologies, but far more can be done. “The opportunity is huge, and we are only at the beginning of it,” says Morley Winograd, the reinvention project’s director.

Social and economic changes are presenting Washington with a long list of other opportunities--and obligations: Gearing Social Security and Medicare to an era of lengthening life spans--and greater demands for individual choice. Creating a meaningful safety net of health care and retirement income for the growing numbers of self-employed Americans. Redirecting social-welfare programs through the community-based organizations that are blooming at the grass roots.

All these challenges offer today’s leaders the same opportunity the Progressives seized: a chance to mark a new century by scraping the rust off public institutions built for the last one.


Ronald Brownstein’s column appears in this space every Monday.

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