You are hereIn a bleak new year, a source of hope exists

In a bleak new year, a source of hope exists

In the Valley, we must rely upon ourselves to make things better.

Thursday, Jan. 01, 2009
The arrival of the new year is supposed to be a time for vision, hope and optimism, when we gauge the failures and shortcomings of the recent past and lay plans for a better future. It's hard to be sanguine at the outset of 2009, with a global recession dampening dreams and threatening lives all around us.
Things are especially grim in this region. Even in good times the Valley lags behind the rest of the state and nation. Now, in this deepening downturn, things are even worse.
As individuals, Valley residents have little control over most of the great events of our time -- war, terrorism, recession. The economic stimulus program being prepared by the incoming Obama administration is a case in point. Powerful interests are already jockeying fiercely for pieces of what is expected to be a considerable pie. The larger interests of the public are often at risk when the special interests collide.
But we are not without clout in that fight. Local elected leaders -- the Valley's mayors, county supervisors, school and special district officials -- should be pounding on the doors of the region's congressional representatives, demanding attention to the Valley's needs. Private citizens need to add their voices.
At the state level, we are all hostage to the dysfunctional system we call -- with increasing sarcasm -- "California government." The inability of state leaders to do their jobs means, among other things, that they will soon be raiding local government agencies for money to patch over the failures hatched in Sacramento. That's going to make things even harder down here in the real world.
Locally, the focus must be on economic development.
The mantra for 2009 must be "jobs, jobs, jobs." But we must take a broader view of what it takes to spur economic development than has always been the case in the past.
Jobs begin in schools, whether it's a career in medicine or in maintenance. Good schools don't only produce college-bound students, they also graduate capable employees for businesses to hire right out of school, as well as talented entrepreneurs prepared to strike out on their own.
Many local school districts have made good strides in restoring what we used to call "vocational education," but with a 21st century focus. More must be done, and the private sector must be willing to help.
Economic development also means creating more livable communities. Cleaner air, better parks, safe roads, recreational and cultural opportunities, support for the arts -- all of these are part of putting more people to work in better-paying jobs.
Health care is a huge part of economic development. Families whose children are sick can quickly become a drain on public resources. Unhealthy workers are a drain on productivity.
Governments, like individuals and families, should always spend prudently. That's especially so in a period of economic downturn. But it's essential to separate investments made in people and infrastructure, which pay dividends into the future, from mere "spending."
Money invested in education and in creating a skilled work force is returned many times over. Well-paid workers pay more taxes. Healthy children do better in school, and are more likely to grow up to be productive citizens. Less poverty means less crime.
Money invested in maintaining public infrastructure, such as streets and parks, and cleaning up blight raises property values, generating more revenue for local governments. A better quality of life in all our neighborhoods will attract more outside investment and help existing businesses flourish and grow.
All that money is hard to find, even in good economic times. But it's essential that it be found. Elected leaders must be innovative, and reach out to the private sector. Businesses, churches, civic organizations -- all have roles to play.
We don't all have to agree on everything -- which is good, because we never will. But all of us in the cities and counties of the Valley have a stake in making things better, and all of us have a duty to help. Leaders can push that process along, but in the end the health and prosperity of the Valley and its citizens rest with its people. Each of us must find ways to help: Volunteer as a crossing guard or youth sports coach, join a civic organization, read to children, visit shut-in neighbors. Take back neighborhoods that are slipping into decay, with the help of aggressive city and county agencies.
Things won't get better because of some magical economic cycles or shifts in the political tides. Things will get better because we make them better -- all of us together. Americans have understood that for all of our history. We just need a reminder from time to time. Happy New Year.
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