When I asked high school seniors in Northeast Wisconsin to give me one word that inspires them about their country, the results were overwhelming: freedom, opportunity, and liberty were by far the most common answers. When I asked them to give me a word that concerns them about our country, debt, government, and racism were the most frequent replies.
Their responses are striking in the form of two word clouds, and I want to share these results as this year's seniors graduate and enter the world as newly-minted adults.
Responses from hundreds of high school seniors reflect the fights we've been having for generations and more recent issues that have been in the news and on our minds. It's not surprising that if freedom and liberty are things you value most; then debt, government, and racism would be the things that concern you the most — they directly threaten freedom, liberty, and opportunity.
For individuals and for countries, debt significantly reduces freedom. If someone receives something for free, another American must work for free to give it. While government serves a necessary role, when it grows too influential in our lives it becomes a threat to liberty. Racism and discrimination inhibit opportunity for all Americans.
These word clouds show a lot about how today's young adults are thinking. They are perceptive, independent, driven, and conscientious. They care about their futures, and they are concerned that older generations are going to hand them a mess in the future. This should be a wake-up call to get our nation's fiscal house in order. For the first time in history, Americans are worried that their kids may not do as well as they did. It isn't too late to turn that around.
We should start by requiring the government to pay — not borrow — for everything it buys. Every federal program that is paid for in borrowed dollars is simply a future tax. If Congress feels something is so important that they authorize buying it, then it should be important enough to pay for it. This reform can only take shape when coupled with principled lawmakers who refuse to spend money we do not have. This includes reforms to our biggest budget items, like Social Security and Medicare, to ensure they will be there for today's high school seniors when they need them.
To plan for the long term, investing in finding cures for chronic diseases like Alzheimer's and diabetes would pay enormous dividends in reducing overall healthcare costs. Cures for chronic illnesses would eliminate the very real human costs to family caregivers as well.
Economic reforms would go a long way toward giving today's graduates a better future, but protecting liberty and opportunity are also necessary. Government continues to grow, and many well-intentioned programs and regulations end up dragging down the economy and lasting far beyond their useful life. Young Americans want the red tape cut and a reduction in the footprint of government.
In order to increase opportunity for all Americans to succeed, reforms to our primary, secondary, and higher education systems are needed to ensure quality student-centered education. As a country, we believe strongly that all Americans should be able to pursue their dreams; a solid foundation of education is vital to that process.
While there are many disagreements on how we solve our most fundamental problems, we all agree that we want today's graduates to have bright futures in a strong and vital America. As legislators and citizens, we must make the hard decisions today so we don't burden the class of 2016 with them tomorrow.