Barbara Shelly

State finds ways to solve problems — in Mexico

Updated: 2013-11-23T23:29:28Z


The Kansas City Star

If you follow the news these days, it’s hard to escape the sense that everything is broken.

Washington doesn’t work. Our health care system doesn’t work and neither, right now, does a big part of the law intended to improve it. Our economy doesn’t work for a lot of people. So much seems broken, I find it a small miracle when my car starts in the morning.

So I was heartened this week to stumble upon a story about something that is working surprisingly well. In Mexico, no less, a country most Americans have gotten used to thinking of as one step away from the scrap heap.

But there it was, front and center in The New York Times, a story about a rising middle class in Guanajuato, a Mexican state where for years the path to prosperity was thought to be a border crossing into the United States.

Now industries are moving into the state. Not the maquiladoras that pay cheap wages for low-skill work, but auto factories and biotech companies and the kinds of good-paying jobs that every governor in America is trying to recruit.

The Times piece featured 23-year-old Ivan Zamora, a recent university graduate who just converted an engineering internship into a full-time job at the new Volkswagen factory near his home. He is spending part of his earnings to help a sister study marine biology.

“In a country where connections and corruption are still common tools of enrichment, many people here are beginning to believe they can get ahead through study and hard work,” reporter Damien Cave wrote.

That used to be America’s defining belief and promise. Now, as the hope of upward mobility gains traction in Mexico, we watch it slipping in the United States.

So what is the state of Guanajuato doing to encourage this new day?

It is investing in education, for one thing. It built a polytechnic university that offers technical degrees as well as traditional academic undergraduate and graduate programs. The state strives to make college affordable, which is an incentive for students and families. Zamora’s parents decided that education, not emigration, was the right path for their children. Both teachers, they saved up to purchase their son a computer and German lessons.

Guanajuato is also investing in infrastructure, including an interior port to accommodate the international companies moving into the area.

Affordable education and infrastructure are two investments we know will pay off. But while a state in Mexico is prioritizing them, U.S. states like Kansas and Missouri are pushing in the opposite direction, with many policymakers favoring tax cuts at the expense of schools, universities, highways and other public assets.

In Washington, Democrats and Republicans have locked horns and refuse to come to terms on an annual budget, much less a long-term growth strategy. Across-the-board spending cuts have seriously impacted infrastructure spending and investment in science and research. Brilliant scientists and engineers who used to see the U. S. as the promised land are taking their talents to other places.

We can shrug off a piece of good news and note that Mexico still has drug cartels and wide-scale corruption and that only about a third of adults have the equivalent of a high school diploma. Almost half the population lives in poverty and the overall economy is still stagnant.

But in pockets, there is a sense that people and systems can actually solve problems and improve lives. Success builds upon success. People start to believe.

We should be happy for Mexico. And we should look at what’s working there — think education and infrastructure — and apply the lessons here.

Some strategies are so obvious that even our bickering leaders should agree to give them a try.

To reach Barbara Shelly, call 816-234-4594 or send email to Follow her at

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