New Report Confronts Challenges To Tennessee’s Future

Monday, April 8, 2013

A new staff report to the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) says Tennesseans need a shared, long-term vision to make the most of the state’s assets and meet current and future challenges.  Called Charting a Course to Tennessee’s Future, the report offers the best thinking of a cross-section of public officials, private sector leaders, and members of academia on how to envision a better future, work toward common goals, and solve shared problems.

The report notes Tennessee’s many strengths––because of its location and landscapes, it is a natural transportation hub and tourist destination, and its high quality of life continues to attract new businesses and residents.

At the same time, though, Tennesseans are confronting many challenges.  The state’s growing population is also aging, increasing the demand for services from health care to transportation.  As the population ages, the workforce shrinks by comparison even as workers and the businesses that employ them try to adapt to the changes wrought by globalization.

Tennessean’s educational attainment levels and overall health, though improving, lag behind those of residents of other states.  Sharp contrasts of wealth and poverty make developing effective statewide policies to deal with these problems a daunting task.  And, at a time when government at all levels is strapped for resources, public roads and bridges, and water and sewer lines are deteriorating.

Most people interviewed for Charting a Course to Tennessee’s Future were asked, “What do you think Tennessee’s biggest challenges will be over the next 20 years?”  They responded with a wide range of concerns but with surprising agreement, echoing four broad themes centering on people, infrastructure, natural resources, and governance.  More than half of those interviewed said that education is the greatest challenge, citing its effect on the state’s ability to provide a skilled workforce and promote economic development.  They also expressed concern about the effect of education on Tennessean’s health and civic engagement.

The report notes that, like the rest of the United States, Tennessee’s population is not only becoming older but also more racially and ethnically diverse.  The Tennessee Data Center projects that the state’s population will increase by 25% between 2010 and 2040—from 6.3 million to 7.9 million.  At the same time, the population aged 85 and older will more than double, from about 100,000 to 203,500, and the percentage who are children will decrease.  Tennessee’s leaders will need to consider how these changes affect health care, housing, transportation, and education.

The report also notes that Tennesseans face many health problems, from infant mortality to adult-onset diabetes.  Sadly, many of the health problems plaguing the state’s population are rooted in risky personal choices, such as poor eating habits, lack of exercise, smoking, substance abuse, and refusing to wear seatbelts.  Reducing healthcare costs and improving economic productivity will require changing these behaviors.

According to Charting a Course to Tennessee’s Future, Tennessee lacks long-term vision to address these and other challenges.  While pockets of focused thinking can be found in various agencies and organizations, no single representative group is charged with thinking broadly about the future.  Consequently, state agencies, local governments, as well as the private and not-for-profit sectors, sometimes duplicate effort and work at cross-purposes, thus wasting both resources and opportunities.

The report concludes that meeting the challenges of the 21st Century will require continuity of thought and leadership that transcends election terms and intrastate rivalries, as well as greater interaction and coordination within and among all levels of government and the private and nonprofit sectors.  Promising initiatives are underway in a handful of other states, and good work is being done here on a local and regional level.  Some of these plans are discussed in the report.

Whatever the approach, the report suggests that Tennessee should draw on the expertise of various groups and individuals in order to facilitate meaningful discussion of public problems, exploit the wealth of available data, emphasize outcomes more, and provide incentives to encourage better long-term results.

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