When times are tough—and they haven’t been this tough in a long, long while—systems tend to crave fruit.

I’m not referring to inner organs and ripe plums; what I mean instead is that large institutions, including government at all levels, balance budgets by chopping off the lowest-hanging fruit. City and state agencies are being asked “generate revenue” (read: increase fees) or to cut 15 percent or more from their budgets, and the lowest hanging fruit—the programs on the chopping block—tend to be those that nurture human capital.

Let’s first consider systems. Both public and private systems have goals and produce outputs with inputs. I pay city and county taxes (input) so that roads can be built (output); I then get to drive on those roads. On a more local level: I purchase a new computer from Dell (input) so that I might work more happily and efficiently (output). All systems need our financial input to function properly, but we rarely pay attention to every output. I’m much more likely to appreciate my sleek new computer than I am the smooth drive to the grocery store. But both returns on my investment—and my overall quality of life—are the result of a strategic investment decision.

We as a society must be less obsessed with immediate outcomes and more mindful of the long-term common good. Here’s a novel idea: Let’s do more than pay lip service to public education, social services, and human capital. If thinkers as diverse as David Brooks on the right and Thomas Friedman on the left can agree on the importance of non-infrastructure investments, then why can’t we? Aren’t we more than the sum of our highway networks and sewer systems?

Now on to the fruit. I ask those policy makers and agency gatekeepers facing tough decisions to pause and reflect before cutting budgets in ways that sacrifice our most valuable asset: ourselves. The City of San Antonio plans to funnel an additional $3 million to economic development but to reduce its investment in literacy programs by $300,000. At the state level, the Texas Grants Fund will provide fewer scholarships owing to the looming $18 billion budget deficit. All of these programs spur economic growth; it’s just that some returns take longer to realize.

We live in a great city and a great state. But we ignore our alarming dropout and illiteracy rates at our peril. If we rush to harvest our low-hanging fruit—if we sacrifice programs that yield human capital—then we risk the qualities that attract homeowners and corporations and still other institutions to our community. We risk the very systems that keep our society moving forward.

At the end of the budget process, I can only hope that our systems’ leaders choose to grow the fruit that will provide for us year after year, not only in infrastructure, but in human capital.

Celina Pena directs the South Texas Women's Business Center, a sounding board for entrepreneurs. She and her husband Michael enjoy reading Harry Potter and Percy Jackson with their two boys Alejo and Americo.
Saytown Lowdown is a regular San Antonio Current feature that allows thinkers from across the community spectrum to expound upon the vital issues of our day. Submit your ideas to [email protected].

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