Harkin and Latham: American dream is at risk

by The Des Moines Register   •  

Tom Harkin and Tom Latham

During our time in Congress, we traveled around Iowa and heard from people of all ages, walks of life and political beliefs about their desire to work hard and achieve the American dream.

Yet we know this beacon of hope is at risk. Today, a child born into a low-income household in Canada and a half-dozen European countries has a better chance of improving his or her economic situation than a similar child born in the United States. Just 9 percent of children born to the poorest families in our country ever make it through college, a goal achieved by 77 percent of the most affluent students. Poverty has increased over the past five years and wages for working families are stagnant.

This runs counter to the core ideals of our country. The 2016 presidential election gives us a chance to turn this situation around by urging Democrats and Republicans to work together and restore America’s promise as a true nation of opportunity for all its residents.

Economic mobility and income inequality are among the biggest issues being debated by candidates of both parties. We must ensure they remain front and center on the national agenda when the next president takes office, and that he or she works closely with Congress to dramatically expand opportunity for families and for young Americans, including youth with disabilities.

Currently, 5.5 million young adults are disconnected from school and work and millions more who lack meaningful pathways to education and career. Youth unemployment remains stubbornly high — twice the national average. The problems of youth disconnection and unemployment affect all of us and require urgent action by elected officials of both parties and by leaders from the public, private and nonprofit sectors. For adults with disabilities, the figures are even starker: more than 60 percent of adults with disabilities are not in the workforce, yet they want to work and have skills to contribute.

At the same time, many U.S. employers say that the inability to find qualified workers is their biggest obstacle to growth. In 1973, just 28 percent of American jobs required education beyond high school. By 2020, two-thirds of all jobs will require a postsecondary degree or credential. In Iowa today, 57 percent of jobs require such skill levels, but only 33 percent of Iowans have the education level required for these good jobs, according to Iowa Workforce Development.

America’s future is at risk if we are not able to build a workforce that can compete. Providing equal access to opportunity for all Americans is the defining issue of our time. Without opportunity, this country cannot thrive, cannot innovate and cannot survive.

It will take all of us, Republican and Democrat, working together, to achieve this goal. And we know that bipartisan cooperation is possible. Just last year, while we were still in Congress, both parties came together to pass the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which sends more than $12 million to Iowa each year for skills training and career readiness programs.

The passage of WIOA proves that when an issue is important enough — such as helping more youth and displaced workers, including people with disabilities, get jobs and skills training for the 21st century economy — Congress and the president can still find common ground to collaborate and compromise for the common good.

We believe there are many other opportunities for bipartisan collaboration on issues that will help millions of Americans achieve economic security and stability. We are proud that Iowa’s leading stakeholders will convene on Nov. 16 to discuss these issues at a cross-sector, bipartisan convening at Des Moines Area Community College. The event is co-hosted by DMACC and Opportunity Nation, a bipartisan campaign to expand economic mobility and close the opportunity gap in America.

Restoring the American dream is a goal both parties, and indeed, all Americans, can agree on. Together, let’s make sure the expansion of opportunity is at the top of the next president’s agenda, whoever he or she may be.

Former Sen. Tom Harkin and former Rep. Tom Latham are honorary co-chairs of the Nov. 16 Iowa Opportunity Forum at Des Moines Area Community College along with Dr. Andy McGuire, chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party and Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa. For more information, visit

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