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By Dave Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer
In his quest to assist the next generation or two in the United States with interesting careers and meaningful work, Matt James of Ladera finds it hard to overstate the importance of a public education system that meets the needs of all its students, and an economy that is actively moving away from dependence on fossil fuels.
A tall order, and Mr. James is neither an educator nor a scientist. He does have resources as a communicator. With an undergraduate degree in broadcast communications from Western Michigan University, he started off as a congressional press secretary, first for Congressman Morris Udall of Arizona, then for Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, and then Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York. He came to his current position as president and chief executive of the nonprofit and nonpartisan Center for the Next Generation (in San Francisco) after 20 years with the Menlo Park-based Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, where he was an executive vice president.
The Kaiser foundation is known for providing facts and analysis on health issues for policymakers, the news media and the public. A testament to Kaiser's success? In the debate leading up to the U.S. Supreme Court decision on President Obama's Affordable Care Act, opponents and backers both used Kaiser data in their arguments, Mr. James says.
That's the kind of reputation Mr. James says he wants for the Center for the Next Generation: to become a highly reliable source for facts, information and analysis. The goals are to "paint a realistic picture of the lives of America's kids and what needs to be done to allow them to reach their full potential" and to provide facts that help develop "regional advanced energy innovation chapters across the United States," the Center's website says.
"We are relentlessly focused on what we think are the most important issues for the next generation," Mr. James told the Almanac over coffee recently. "If people have the straight facts and really know what's going on, they will make good decisions."
The Center is "a strategic communications firm that is also a think tank," and has funding of $15 million for the next five years, Mr. James says. The major backer is co-founder Tom Steyer, who also founded Farallon Capital Management in San Francisco. Other major gifts include $500,000 from the Ford Foundation and $3 million from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
For the children
There are approximately 72 million children under 18 in the United States. The Center's website describes the plight of many of them:
■ About 15.5 million live in poverty a household in which the annual income is below $22,050 for a family of four -- according to a 2010 report from the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University. Another 16.5 million live in low-income households, meaning up to twice the poverty level, or an income of $44,700.
■ More than 26 percent suffer chronic ill health, including obesity, asthma, diabetes and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, according to a 2010 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association.
■ Among 2012-13 state budgets, there are "identifiable deep" cuts to preschool and K-12 spending in 23 states, cuts to public health care in 20 states, and cuts to higher education in 25 states, according to analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Given these grim statistics, what would the Center for the Next Generation do? Its "Too Small to Fail" program, set to begin in November, will initiate a multi-year national public information campaign to address student debt, children living in poverty, the struggles of working parents, the impact of digital media on families, and chronic health issues among adolescents.
Over the next five years, strategic messages will go out as advertisements across the country via several platforms: TV, print, radio, billboard and social media; interactive online resources for parents; annual parent surveys; discussions in town hall meetings; and white papers presented in collaboration with "other major research institutions and affinity groups."
The targets are parents, businesses and government. Parents will be urged to give their children more of their time. The private sector should "provide support to families through workplace policies and support the things in communities that help kids -- from parks to schools," Mr. James says. As for the public sector: "Our nation's leaders must adequately support the institutions and infrastructure that will enable the next generation to grow and succeed. America's kids deserve a world-class education and a quality health care system that will help them become our country's best generation yet."
Will the support involve higher taxes? "Yes," Mr. James says. "Taxes are an essential part of supporting services and we have been cutting the taxes that support kids so increased taxes do need to be discussed."
Among 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2010, student performance in the United States ranked 25th in math and 17th in science, according to the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. With U.S. job openings for engineers of 200,000 every year, U.S. colleges graduate just 60,000 engineers compared to 600,000 each in India and China, the SVLG says.
Occupations in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) "generate the technological changes that shape all other occupations," the SVLG says. "Having the talent to fill these positions is essential to ensure growth. ... STEM jobs are the engine that will power the country out of recession."
Breaking the habit
The other half of the Center's mission is breaking the country's dependence on fossil fuel, and thereby shifting the direction of the economy toward clean energy and the jobs that come with it.
No small challenge, given national and international trends alluded to on the Center's website:
■ The United States in 2010 spent $256 billion on imported oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That's just over half of the $497.8 billion annual trade deficit the amount our collective spending for imported goods exceeded our collective income from exported goods.
■ While worldwide investment in clean energy in 2010 grew 30 percent, to $243 billion, the United States came in third with $34 billion behind China with $54 billion and Germany with $41 billion, according to a report by The Pew Charitable Trusts.
■ The global capacity in 2010 for electricity from photo-voltaic cells grew 131 percent, according to a U.S. Department of Energy report. That capacity rose 54 percent in the United States, dropping the U.S. to fifth place in the world, behind Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic and Japan.
The Center will tackle the conversion to clean energy as a regional issue, Mr. James says. One model, he says, is the New England Clean Energy Council, a "progressively pragmatic" group that represents wind, solar and battery companies and gives them clout together that they don't have alone. "I want to figure out how to do that across the country," to create a nationwide chamber of commerce for clean-energy companies, Mr. James says.
Why do fossil fuel companies and their customers stay with coal and oil? Because it's extremely profitable, he says. "If they know over time that there are advantages in moving to a new technology, they'll go there."
The next generation
Asked about strengths and weaknesses in the next generation, Mr. James says he is "totally impressed with the next generation's ability to think outside the box. Not just in California but around the country. They're incredibly optimistic about their future."
Their principal weakness is not their fault: too much debt after college. "That makes it hard to dig out and do the other things you need to do to start a family," he says.
Mr. James recently hired two women to direct two key programs: for children and families, and for advanced energy and sustainability. Do women bring something unique? "To raise successful kids, you need successful families," he says in an email. "And the truth is that women still bear primary responsibility for child-rearing. They tend to better understand how family-friendly policies affect families and are more willing to push for family-friendly policies from both government and businesses.
"I have been fortunate to work with incredibly smart, capable and caring women at both Kaiser and now at the Center. I tend to find that the women I work with (and key advisers on my work, like my wife Donna) have a greater sense of what needs to be done to build and support successful families."