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Can We Do More Than One Thing at a Time?

Memorial Day has always fascinated me as an example of a US holiday that serves multiple purposes simultaneously: it's a day of remembrance for those who died in service to the country, and it's also a day to celebrate the coming of summer with cookouts, trips to the beach and family vacations. Somehow, we as a community are capable of doing all of that on one day. Today is a reminder that Americans are capable of doing multiple things at once. 

Despite our ability to do multiple things at once, we don't always use it, and one of my largest frustrations as a policy advisor is when we don't multitask well, especially when it comes to preparing for the future.  Last week, an Interstate 5 bridge collapsed over the Skagit River in the state of Washington. The bridge was "functionally obsolete" before a truck hit it and it collapsed. No one was injured in this incident, but other failures have led to loss of life, including the I-35W bridge failure in Minnesota nearly six years ago.  

When I hear how badly our bridges are deteriorating, it reminds me of the old saying about "missing dollars while chasing dimes." Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood spoke at length at the recent Generations Forum about China building several dozen new airports each year and the US not meeting our basic infrastructure needs - that can't be good for America's long-term economic development. Should we just wait for the inevitable crisis to come and deal with it then?  That seems inefficient - a total collapse may be rare at any given moment, but when it happens, there are great costs to recovering. 

I see a parallel between our aging infrastructure and a housing stock that doesn't meet the physical needs of occupants - we aren't making the investments now that can help us later. As I discussed in my last post, declining housing affordability is another major concern - people are living in homes that simply take too much of their budget. On the accessibility side, trends have shown that more older people with disabilities are living in the community, and we will need  more homes that meet a wide range of needs in communities nationwide.  (I spoke about the different strategies for increasing housing accessibility in this post.)  
I've heard some individuals advise that people should "only buy (or rent) what you can afford" or "save your money for a rainy day" when they hear the high percentages of income that people are spending on housing. That is always good advice for individual households, but it isn't always possible to save money with the real-life options that working families and fixed-income families are facing. Communities are better off if there are a range of housing and transportation choices - people need affordable options that meet their needs.

Individuals aren't great at doing the calculation about what they might require in the future as their needs change, but communities can make decisions now to prepare for future needs. To me, this is part of the basic logic behind AARP's livable communities philosophy (and policy solutions) - we should accept the challenge to create the housing and mobility options that people need in the long-run.  In the near-term, we should do what we can to make up for the fact that many homes and communities don't meet residents'  needs and prepare ourselves for the inevitability that many will find themselves in tough situations. 

Just as we can celebrate multiple things at once, we should be able to accomplish multiple goals at once.  

What do you think?  Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below or @DrUrbanPolicy.


  1. The best answer I have heard to the "only buy (or rent) what you can afford" and "save your money for a rainy day" advice comes from a scene in It's A Wonderful Life where George Bailey addresses this in a speech to the board of the Building and Loan. The gist of George Bailey's argument is: Why would people of modest means want to save their money for a rainy day rather than have a better life for themselves and their families now? The financial sectors and professional investors of course want average people to save their money because that gives the Wall Street boys more capital to play with.


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