By Earle I. Mack

If we defend our culture, we are defending our country. If we keep our arts and humanities strong, we are showing an example for the world to see. If we celebrate our heritage and our cultural diversity, we will help our people stand together.

Our country faces serious challenges today, both external and internal. With violence and disorder multiplying in many parts of the world, we must strengthen not only our military defense but our social cohesion. Within our own society, we are divided by many issues, but as recent events have painfully reminded us, we have a new generation of young people, the millennials, many of whom have lost their moorings.

The arts and humanities have a proven role in strengthening our economy but also in getting young people off the streets and into places where they can learn how to be happy, successful members of society. These include schools and libraries, as well as cultural venues like museums, theaters, concert halls and galleries. In these places, young people learn respect for our country and respect for fellow citizens.

Many studies over the past 35 years have demonstrated the economic impact of the arts. The nonprofit arts sector generates $166.3 billion in economic activity nationwide, provides 4.6 million jobs, and returns $27.5 billion in state and local government revenue annually. There are more than 700,000 arts and humanities organizations in the United States today. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that the arts organizations are a $730 billion industry annually, which represents 4.2 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

As citizens involved in business and philanthropy, we are proud of what we can and have accomplished in the United States. We believe in the American system of using nonprofit organizations to lead the way in many fields, from science, health care and education, to culture. But we also understand how, in the best cases, government works with private individuals, corporations and foundations to support nonprofit arts organizations. This is true at all levels.

City government supports its unique centers of cultural identity. State government does the same for the benefit of all its communities. But the federal government has a unique role to play: It not only supports cultural organizations financially, it provides a badge of honor, validating the importance of these groups and their accomplishments and services. This is the genius of the American system of supporting the arts through a public-private partnership.

It is in this way that the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) not only share the responsibility of funding the arts, they place these organizations on a high stage to demonstrate American greatness before the world. Can this make an impact on our defense, perhaps?

Federal funding is not only an effective investment in these organizations, producing an impressive return. It also is a statement to the world that there is a unity of purpose between government and the private sector in improving the lives of all Americans and contributing to the cultural life of many nations.

As citizens, we are very impressed by the return on investment in Federal support for the arts. Research going back 20 years, to a study by McKinsey & Company, demonstrates that public investment in the arts helps the arts organizations raise $9 for every dollar in public support. Similarly, while NEA and NEH funding currently is at $300 million, the nonprofit cultural organizations return $9.6 billion in federal taxes to the American people.

This is big business, a wise investment and a great deal, and we know many Americans agree. In fact, whenever leaders in government raise the possibility of significantly reducing support for the NEA and NEH, there is a strong expression of public support for them, from business and community leaders, and so many citizens. Today, we are emphatically adding our voices to plead with President Trump and Congress to continue public support.

The arts are an element in our nation’s defense. They instill pride and unity among our citizens and build good will with foreign nations. The arts are a powerful economic engine. They provide jobs and add to local and national wealth by attracting tourism and business investment, and collect more in taxes than the government gives them.

The arts contribute directly to education. They have proven to be effective in increasing basic literacy and enhance students in understanding and learning mathematics, science and language. Doing this can take at-risk children off the streets and give them a sense of accomplishment and hope instead of hopelessness and anger.

So, let’s give our kids something to be proud of, a sense of respect for human lives and their own communities and their country and help keep them from losing their way. That’s our best defense. If the late former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who once called for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, could be convinced to keep it, we hope that current members of Congress will do the same and continue support for the arts and humanities. Will common sense ever make a comeback?

Earle Mack is chairman emeritus of the New York State Council on the Arts and served as U.S. ambassador to Finland from 2004 to 2005.

Read the full post from Earle I Mack on The Hill: http://thehill.com/opinion/civil-rights/374558-keep-america-strong-and-proud-by-defending-the-arts-and-humanities