Thursday, August 4, 2011

Big Government, Small People?

Kayaking on Marsh Creek Lake the evening of August 2, just hours after the debt ceiling agreement was signed into law, I found myself thinking about government. Good thing? Bad thing?

House Speaker John Boehner, in his televised remarks on August 1, made a remark that has already been recirculated with great glee: “the bigger the government, the smaller the people.” Apparently he was paraphrasing a Dennis Prager column from a few weeks earlier that has already been accepted as common knowledge: “Big Government Means Small People.” 

Watching the families picnicking along the side of the lake, the inevitable dads and kids fishing from the bank, sailboats tacking across the water, I found myself giving thanks for government. Marsh Creek State Park is owned, operated, maintained by government, as are most of the places important to me: Central Park, the vast reserves of the Adirondacks, the hawk-watch platform at Cape May Point, the sandy beaches of Bombay Hook.

But government has given me more than parks.

Government gave me thirteen years of really great schools: committed teachers, formative programs. I learned to play the cello thanks to a government-funded music teacher. I learned to love art using thick, government-funded tempra paints. Our town helped pay for my summers at camp through a program for low-income families, and when I wasn’t at camp, watched me all summer at a government-funded rec program, where I perfected my knock hockey skills.

I think it’s safe to say I would not have survived childhood without government. When my grandmother, sole guardian of four needy kids, didn’t have money to take us to the doctor, government stepped in and paid our doctor bills. And when she found she couldn’t earn enough to pay rent, buy us clothes, and also put food on the table, government stepped in with Food Stamps.

College? Without government, I wouldn’t have gone. I was fortunate to live in New York State during a period when the state put a high priority on developing its human capital. State grants and scholarships paid all of my tuition, and most of my living expenses. Thank you, government.

Thank you, too, for Title Nine, passed as I was entering college. It encouraged my school to add some women’s sports, which made it possible for me to play field hockey, and eased my entrance into graduate school and access to grad school funding.

When I was first married, living in Philadelphia, we found we couldn’t afford a car, so were grateful for Septa and Amtrack, both subsidized by government. Of course, we still enjoy government-subsidized transportation: safe bridges, good roads, modern airports. As I write this, a crew is repaving the road in front of my house. Thank you, government.

We lived for years near the United States Geological Survey offices in Reston, Virginia, so when I check the weather, or hear about hurricane warnings, or read the latest about forest fire control, I think of my USGS friends, government workers I’m thankful for.

scene from Gasland, a documentary
about fracking and water safety in PA
I have friends involved in water missions to parts of the world where government is small and human needs are great. In a world where more than 880 million people have inadequate access to clean water, I am deeply grateful that every time I turn on my faucet – every time! – clean, clear water flows out. Our government works hard to make that happen. There are some who think they should work less hard, but I believe they’re wrong.

Do I agree with all government spending? Of course not. Misguided farm subsidies have done real damage. Too much US aid is channeled through corporations like Monsanto in ways that harm, rather than help, food production in developing countries. And I’m still trying to understand why multinational banks like Bank of America were given billions of dollars in federal bailout money when they did little to help people in foreclosure, have paid no US taxes in years, and managed to give their executives millions during the worst recession in decades.

But that’s not a problem of big government. It’s a problem of big business exercising undue influence in the process.

Do I want less government? I’m sure there are some places where less government would be a good thing. But in the places I care about, for the people I know best, less government would be a disaster.

The old Willard School entrance
The new Willard Elementary School recently replaced the oldest school building in Philadelphia, a four story building built in 1907 – no cafeteria, no library, no elevator, no gym, no playground. It took almost forty years of community activism to find funds to build the new school, and even though it’s beautiful, and has a library, gym, cafeteria, even an auditorium, the last time I asked there was no staffing for the library, and no funds to buy library books. Too much government, or not enough?

A friend enrolling her daughter in kindergarten in the same neighborhood asked about classroom size. She knows her daughter needs help to catch up. The mom never even started ninth grade, but she’s determined her daughter do better. In her poor, urban neighborhood, there are twenty-five children per kindergarten class. Extra attention? One on one help? Not possible. Too much government? Or not enough?

I know quite a few young adults who are eager to teach in urban settings. Some began jobs a year or two ago, only to lose them in the current round of budget cuts. Some can't find a first job at all. Is this a win? To me it looks like a triple loss. They, and the kids they would have served, are all suddenly smaller, as is our economy, and the urban neighborhoods where they would have rented apartments, bought food, built community.

Waste? Fraud? Those are bad things. But I wonder – who is more likely to think government is too big: those in school districts where the per capita expenditure is above average, or those where it’s below? You can buy a very good education for $14,000 a year (our regional average), if you’re in a district with limited special needs and lots of motivated parents. Could you do as well on $10,000 in an outdated building, with lots of special needs kids, on a street with an active drug trade? 

Would it be better if churches and other community groups took a larger role in caring for human need? That’s a great ideal. I’ve seen some wonderful, effective faith-based programs. I’ve been part of some good work in needy places, and have benefited myself from the care of people of faith and compassion.

But a lot more churches would need to be a lot more proactive –consistently so - before I’d accept that as an argument for less government. And there are things government can do that no one else can: insist on fair treatment, protect our environment, ensure our food is really food, with no unknown, untested ingredients mixed in. I’d argue there’s a way to go on all of that.

I don’t believe big government makes us smaller. I believe wise government enhances our lives, opens doors of opportunity, protects us and our environment, provides a safety net for the poor, the frail, those squeezed out by the systems of the day.

How big should government be? Big enough to accomplish those tasks well.