Republicans Want Us to Choose Between Education and Health, We Deserve Both

This article originally appeared on Demos' Policy Shop. 

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What's more important for creating a strong American work force: investing in education or investing in health?

The answer is both, which is why it is bewildering to watch as conservatives in Congress pit these two ingredients of success against one another.

A recent GOP-sponsored bill would pay for student loan deferments by robbing money earmarked for the Public Health and Prevention Fund established by the Affordable Care Act. This policy is shortsighted and misguided.

Human capital doesn’t just happen — like any resource, it requires stewardship and investment. And arguably, the two most important investments we can make to ensure the productivity of the American worker are in education and health.

Why? It’s clear that what makes American workers so productive, on average, is the quality of our post-secondary education system. That largely explains why low-skilled, less educated workers —rather than those high-skilled workers educated in American colleges and universities — were hit hardest by the recent recession, the deepest since the Great Depression. And even as we hemorrhage low-skilled manufacturing jobs to emerging economies like China, the U.S. continues to lead the world in technological innovation, business, and academic research on the back of its educated workforce.

But health also matters to productivity. Unhealthy workers are unreliable, and ultimately, unproductive. And so investments in health are equally important. Whereas our higher education system is among the best in the world, our health system — by almost any metric — is mediocre. Never mind its behemoth costs; its outcomes are middle range. The United States ranks 49th in the world for life expectancy. That’s largely because obesity and diabetes rates in the U.S. are among the highest. And study after study has demonstrated that obesity itself, even when ignoring the many diseases it causes, predicts poor productivity in the workplace.

As education and health are so crucial to the productivity of the American worker, recent trends in higher education and health are cause for alarm. 

Rocketing tuition costs are making the promise of a high-quality education increasingly unattainable for many young Americans — what was once the problem of American student-loan debt has not become the crisis. And the growing sticker price on a college degree is literally pricing our young people — the future of our productivity — out of the market. What’s worse, the health of the American workforce is declining. Obesity rates continue to rise, to the point that public health experts have predicted a decline in American life expectancy for the first time in over 50 years as a result of our expanding waistlines.

But GOP lawmakers have decided that the American worker isn’t worth it. She can have education at a reasonable financial cost, or an investment in her health — but not both.

The implications of this line of thinking are disastrous. As emerging economies continue to siphon low-skilled jobs away from our shores, it is clear that education is the key to ensuring our financial future. But even those gains will be threatened by chronic disease epidemics — obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease — that are exploding at the expense of the health of millions of Americans.

Ultimately, when considering education, health, and America’s future, an investment in one without the other is no investment at all. And that’s the investment GOP lawmakers would prefer.

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Abdulrahman El-Sayed

Dr. Abdulrahman M El-Sayed is a social epidemiologist and physician-in-training at Columbia University. He is also a Fellow at Demos, a non-partisan public policy center in New York. His commentary, which has been featured in Al Jazeera, The Guardian, the Huffington Post, and the Spotlight on Poverty, engages conversations about healthy policy questions in the US and globally, with a particular focus on disease prevention in light of health trends.

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