The Declaration of Independence states that all Americans have certain unalienable rights endowed by their Creator — “among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
In this age of prosperity, I believe other basic human needs exist that society should help with, including access to a good education, enough food to sustain life and low-cost, high-quality health care. While not rising to the level of the unalienable rights enumerated in the declaration, these basic needs must be addressed for a successful life.
Good education. The pro-education group Education First recently sent a letter to legislators, saying: “Across America, the most vibrant economies put education first. As a business community, we know that a person’s earning power and our community’s wealth are tied to educational achievement. Utah’s continued economic prosperity is driven by those with the knowledge and skills to compete globally.”
Utah has the highest percentage of school-age children in the nation, which is both a great asset and a costly responsibility. Over the past decade, a series of tax cuts have resulted in lost education funding amounting to almost $1 billion per year. The result, as Education First notes, is that “we are last in the country in per pupil spending, outcomes have declined, and as a result our student’s global competitiveness is also in serious decline.”
In addition, businesses cannot find enough qualified and educated workers to expand in Utah. As a community, we need to support Education First’s call for an investment in Utah’s education by returning 7/8 of 1 percent of the income tax revenue that was lost in 2006. The Legislature should put a proposal for a 7/8 of 1 percent income tax increase for education on the 2016 general election ballot.
Freedom from hunger. In a recent study, four out of 10 Utah teachers reported that hunger is a very serious problem in their school. Schools are a major source of food for needy children who come to depend on schools for breakfast and lunch — which may be the only food they get. We must do a better job as a community to take care of our low-income neighbors. We must eradicate hunger. Food banks, churches and their welfare programs and other nonprofit organizations are all trying to feed the needy among us. Government programs provide a safety net for basic necessities. But the real solution, as the Chinese proverb states, is not to give a person a fish to eat, but to teach that person to fish. Education and poverty are interrelated. We can reduce poverty with excellent education that leads to jobs with family-supporting wages.
Health care. Utah is lucky to have the lowest health care costs in the nation and the highest quality of health care. Yet current estimates suggest that about 63,000 Utahns don’t have any current source for health insurance.
Greg Poulsen of Intermountain Healthcare, a national expert on health care policy, has said that expansion of health care access as defined in the Affordable Care Act would sweep in a far larger number of people — at least twice the 63,000 number and perhaps many more — who already have access to insurance through some other mechanism.
We need to continue to meet the needs of the 280,000-plus people currently on the Medicaid rolls — most of them children — while also providing coverage for those 63,000 who are left out. This is consistent with Utah’s values of empathy for those in need, while encouraging self-sufficiency for people who already have access to coverage.
Gov. Gary Herbert, joined by House Speaker Greg Hughes and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, have proposed legislation that would address these needs. They deserve praise for their courage and persistence in seeking affordable and sustainable solutions, even though the full Legislature has so far turned down their proposal.
Our legislators will be facing these issues of education funding, hunger and poverty and providing access to health care in their 2016 session that begins Monday. Much as our Founding Fathers identified the unalienable rights of a free people, our Legislature should ensure all Utahns have access to the basic human needs of quality education, food and health care.
A. Scott Anderson is CEO and president of Zions Bank.