President's Message from Pew Prospectus 2012

By Rebecca W. Rimel
President and Chief Executive Officer

Message from the President, Pew Prospectus 2012 (PDF):

Our challenges today as a nation and a world are serious and urgent, but often seem intractable as policy makers and the public grapple to agree on the nature of the problems—and even on the facts—let alone finding common ground on the solutions.  Our challenges nevertheless are neither unprecedented nor beyond our ability—and responsibility—to address. Not just for today, but also to benefit future generations. Invoking that very responsibility, one of Pew’s founders, Joseph N. Pew Jr., celebrated Independence Day with his company’s employees in 1948 by declaring, “Our problems are not altogether our own, but those of our children and our children’s children.”

It is an understatement to say Mr. Pew’s generation achieved great things for future generations. It suffered and worked through the widespread joblessness, poverty, and despair of the Great Depression, fought and died to defeat tyranny on two sides of the globe, and bequeathed to their children an extended period of prosperity and relative peace.  On that foundation, their children—the baby boomers—advanced health, safety, and social welfare, as well as national and nuclear security, and saw the Berlin Wall come down. They fought for civil and human rights and equal opportunity, made environmental security a national priority, and challenged the democratic process to hear the unheard, continuing the work of our Founding Fathers to form a more perfect union.

Today, however, the boomers’ children are entering adulthood struggling through a fragile economy, weak job market, and uncertain prospects. Indeed, while they remain relatively upbeat about their future, young adults expect to be worse off financially than their parents and grandparents were, as a recent report by the Pew Research Center confirmed. While every generation confronts its challenges, what’s different is that the political environment our children have inherited today is facing extraordinary democratic gridlock that thwarts progress as policy makers often refuse to collaborate even when they agree. 

Indeed, Democracy Index 2011, compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit to measure electoral processes, political participation, and the functioning of government, actually downgraded the United States, putting it 19th among the 25 nations with “full democracies” (behind Malta, the Czech Republic, Uruguay, and the United Kingdom, and barely edging ahead of Costa Rica). “U.S. democracy has been adversely affected by a deepening of the polarization of the political scene and political brinkmanship and paralysis,” the report states. 

At the same time, perhaps the intense frustration with our government is the sound and fury of American-style democracy in action, a desire to harness the power of our system to make positive change and set the nation on a stronger course, and—if history serves—a harbinger of impending breakthrough. Rather than in apathy or anarchy, the members of the “millennial” generation believe—more strongly than their forebears—that government can and should do more to solve our problems, the Pew Research Center found.

If Joseph N. Pew Jr.’s generation could marshal the courage, conviction, and consensus to overcome extraordinary adversity and build a stronger future, is there any reason we cannot? 

The Pew Charitable Trusts has always stood for—and behind—the belief that difficult problems are overcome through focused and rigorous research, founded on sound data and fueled by imagination and a nonpartisan spirit of public service. That vision has guided Pew’s work—constantly adapted to meet new challenges as they emerged—since the creation of our institution in 1948 by Mr. Pew and his siblings.  

Indeed, his son, the late Joseph N. Pew III, who was on our original board of directors and served this organization for most of his life,  once remarked, “Seventy or 80 percent of the problems we work on today did not exist when the donors were alive. They gave us the stewardship responsibility to lead this institution as the needs of society change, so let’s exercise it wisely.”  Known as “Joe the Third,” he was instrumental in upholding Pew’s values and carrying forward the notion that every generation has a duty to advance the next. He died last year, but Pew’s ongoing work is a living tribute to his vision and our donors’ legacy and is motivated by their challenge.  

The duty to advance tomorrow’s generation is especially daunting today.  Some 14 million Americans are out of work.  More than one million families are at risk of losing their homes.  The flow of investment capital and credit—the lifeblood of economic growth and job creation—is stinted by uncertainty.  And there is a growing belief that conflicts between the rich and poor are deepening. A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that two-thirds of the public believe those conflicts are strong, outweighing worries about illegal immigration and racial tensions as concerns for society.

Public demand for action is intense, widespread, and impatient.  But support for practical solutions often is fragmented and even contradictory.  For example, another Pew Research Center survey found that the public overwhelmingly opposes cuts to Social Security and Medicare benefits.  But the vast majority also believes holding benefits at current levels will overburden our children’s generation.

F. Scott Fitzgerald suggested that cognitive dissonance is a sign of a first-rate intelligence, but only if one can function while holding two opposing ideas at the same time. The question for us is: Can we embrace and bridge today’s dissonance and reach balanced solutions that best serve the public interest? 

The answer is “yes, but” … and “if.” 

Pew’s advocacy efforts demonstrate that breakthroughs in democratic gridlock can occur, but only if we garner and apply fact-based solutions, build coalitions on common ground and consensus, and advance concrete, nonpartisan, pragmatic legislative and administrative proposals and actions.

For example, few policy issues have proven more difficult to address than environmental protection and preservation, because while the costs are immediate and sometimes formidable, the benefits occur only gradually.  That said, few investments are more mindful of our responsibility to our children and theirs. Consider Pittsburgh in 1900, the air black with coal dust, or the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland periodically catching fire through 1969, or “Superfund” communities across the country so poisoned by toxic chemicals that families had to pull up stakes, evacuate, and leave their lives behind.  Today’s generations have healthier air, land, and water, and enjoy the economic and health benefits thereof, thanks to those who, in their time, considered environmental hazards a problem “not altogether our own.” Yet we all know that much more needs to be done.

Motivated by this belief, compelled by effective solutions, and working with a range of public and private stakeholders acting in common cause, Pew helped advance policies to preserve wild lands in the West; commit the fishing industry to reduce harvesting and allow rebuilding of a commercially valuable but endangered fish—menhaden—that is also critical to marine life;  secure the pristine wilderness and keystone species in Canada’s boreal forest; safeguard the fragile Arctic ecosystem and the indigenous cultures it sustains from the potential threats from new industrial access for commercial fishing and shipping and offshore energy; createthe world’s largest “shark sanctuary” off the Marshall Islands; and double the area of the world’s ocean that is highly protected.

Closely related to the health of the environment is our own health.  Certainly we live longer and more productive lives, with less debilitating or fatal disease than Mr. Pew’s generation faced, thanks to ongoing breakthroughs in medicine. But old solutions can beget new problems—and demand new research-driven approaches. For example, as use of antibiotics in factory farming promotes new drug-resistant bacteria, the Pew Health Group and the Pew Environment Group are working with a range of stakeholders to discourage use of subtherapeutic antibiotics in livestock for growth promotion and stimulate development of new antibiotics to fight infections. They saw success in early 2012, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration limited agricultural use of an essential category of antibiotics, preserving the effectiveness of these lifesaving medicines. Just as personal health and environmental health transcend political affiliation or point of view, so do the solutions—and the focus of Pew’s work.

Breakthroughs in public policy can also occur when we see and share the same set of facts and choices, or when hidden problems are revealed by the stark and objective light of solid research and information. 

The Pew Budget Challenge, an online tool showing how the U.S. deficit grew and offering options for reducing the federal deficit, helps users recognize that our elected leaders (and all of us) face hard choices.  In a similar vein, how many of us know, as Pew’s Clean Energy Program highlighted, that the U.S. military actually is one of the world’s leading innovators in clean and renewable energy—and whose pragmatic approach helps point the path for our nation and the world? 

Simple awareness of the challenges we face is not enough by itself, though. Democracy requires active and robust public participation in our nation’s affairs. However, a Pew Center on the States report has found that 51 million Americans—nearly a quarter of those eligible to vote—are not registered and thus unable to exercise their precious right and fulfill their civic responsibility. Our Elections Initiative has been working with states to update antiquated registration systems to make it easier for citizens to register while also ensuring voting rolls are accurate, secure, and more cost-effective for taxpayers.

We have made significant progress in helping another important constituency have its voice heard at the ballot box. Over the past two years, 47 states and the District of Columbia, often working from Pew’s research-based policy recommendations, enacted laws that help ensure members of the military and other citizens living overseas will be able to cast votes that will be counted at home, including this year’s presidential election. As President Harry Truman said nearly 60 years ago, it is essential that our troops serving abroad “enjoy the rights they are being asked to fight to preserve.”

Challenges for our democracy will never cease. Indeed, in many ways we are still grappling with the issues, differences, and dynamics our nation’s founders faced in Philadelphia more than 200 years ago.  They imagined and built a republic designed to ensure a lively and healthy public discussion and debate.  They also imagined a healthy conflict of opinion that would build a bridge to consensus on behalf of the commonweal.

Pew is proud to support projects in our home town of Philadelphia, from Independence Mall to the National Constitution Center and Franklin Court, recognizing that understanding our history can help to bridge our differences to achieve the same comity of purpose that built and has sustained our nation for more than two centuries. 

The touchstones of our nation’s birth remind us of what democracy can achieve when we recognize—as the founders did and Joseph N. Pew Jr. echoed—that our children, and their children, are counting on us to do the hard work and raise our sights to solve today’s problems for the generations that follow, just as previous generations have done for us.

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