A Chicken or Egg Question
The question above has nothing to do with cooking. Rather, it has to do with the ongoing debate over the role of government vs. the role of the family, churches, charities, and other voluntary private organizations in assisting vulnerable persons such as the poor, children, the handicapped and the elderly.
Generally speaking, liberals argue that government should take the lead in helping such people because private charities and families cannot be counted upon to have the resources to do so. Conservatives, however, counter that an ever-expanding “nanny state” interferes with the ability of the private sector to fill such needs, and if government got out of the way, private individuals and charities would be better able to meet these needs.
So which came first — the “chicken” of family and societal disintegration or the “egg” of big government? Or is it the other way around — is big government the chicken that laid the egg of societal collapse?
I believe both phenomena perpetuate and feed off one another to an extent, but ultimately, I assert that societal disintegration came first and big government followed.
Many conservatives speak with nostalgia of the pre-Great Society era when people believed in self-reliance, “took care of their own” and didn’t rely on government handouts. The implication is that if expensive social programs (e.g. food stamps, Medicaid, subsidized child care) were discontinued, people would quickly revert to the old ethic and start taking care of themselves and their families again.
While I am no fan of an intrusive nanny state, I have to say that simply shutting off the government spigot won’t necessarily yield the results these people expect, at least not in the short term. There are several factors that have drastically changed the playing field in the last 50 years or so, which will make any attempt to shrink the size of government (necessary though it may be) more complex and more painful than a lot of people realize. Some of those factors (listed in no particular order) are:
1. Divorce and single parenthood. These are the two biggest factors contributing to poverty among women and children, and the resultant demand for cash assistance (welfare/TANF), food assistance, and subsidized child care and preschools. A parent raising one or more children alone without the assistance of a spouse may not have anywhere else to turn, except to the government, for help unless they are blessed with an extended family living nearby or with friends and neighbors they can trust to watch their children or supply other needs when necessary.
Some will argue that the creation of the welfare state exacerbated these problems by making it easier for women to dispense with marriage as a precondition for parenthood. That may be, but let’s not forget the effect of the sexual revolution which was already underway before the Great Society/welfare state began to gather steam. (Certain aspects of the sexual revolution, such as movements to promote easier divorce and greater access to contraception, date back to at least the 1920s.) In this case I believe the sexual revolution was the “chicken” and the welfare state just one of the many bad “eggs” that it produced.
2. Spouses both working outside the home simultaneously. Originally I was going to say “women working outside the home,” but then I realized it goes deeper than that.
Obviously the decline in stay-at-home wives/mothers means more reliance on outside child care, as well as more reliance on adult day care, nursing homes, and other means to care for elderly or disabled relatives. It also means fewer people around in most residential neighborhoods during the day — and particularly during the after-school hours of 3 to 6 p.m. — to monitor what children and teens are doing and with whom they are doing it. This leads to more demand for publicly subsidized youth programs, extended school days and school years, and for more law enforcement aimed at curbing youth crime and drug use.
But it isn’t just women that aren’t around to watch the kids anymore. Men who in past generations might have run their own neighborhood businesses (groceries, taverns, clothing/shoe stores, etc.) with their wives, and allowed their children to participate in maintaining and running those businesses, instead drive or take the train to distant workplaces. This also contributes to the problems mentioned above.
3. Loss of agricultural and manufacturing jobs. In the early to mid 20th-century these jobs were a large part of the economy, and they were available in most communities of any size. Just about any able-bodied man or woman who could read and write (and even many who couldn’t) could find some kind of job on a farm, or in a factory, mine, or store or other facility in their area. The decline of these industries meant 1) people were more frequently forced to move away from their hometowns and families of origin to find work that paid a living wage, and 2) people were more often required to seek education beyond high school in order to become or remain employable.
Moving away from home, or having to move frequently, means not having extended family or trusted neighbors around to help you out in a crisis, or to watch your kids while you work. More demand for postsecondary education means… you guessed it… more demand for state-funded schools and more reliance on government grants, loans and financial aid to pay for it.
4. Decline in religious vocations and religious practice. One of the unfortunate side effects of the decline in Catholic Religious vocations in recent decades is that it gutted an important social “safety net” for entire communities, not just for Catholics. Hospitals, schools, children’s homes, homes for the elderly, soup kitchens and many other programs were run by clergy or by nuns or monks/friars living under vows of poverty. When vocations began to decline, these institutions had to either close or replace their Religious staff with lay persons who had to be paid a living wage and be provided with health insurance and other benefits. The cost of attempting to operate with lay staff only forced more institutions to close and others to merge, dissolve or consolidate with secular entities. A similar process occurred with some Protestant organizations and institutions such as Lutheran Social Services, the YMCA and YWCA, etc.
Meanwhile, the post-Vatican II decline in the number of practicing lay Catholics cut into organizations such as the Knights of Columbus, Holy Name and Altar and Rosary societies, St. Vincent de Paul Societies, Catholic Youth Organizations, and others that relied upon volunteers. The same thing happened also to Protestant churches’ ladies’ aid societies and other volunteer groups. Who took up the slack they left behind? You know the answer to that by now.
5. More persons with disabilities living longer. Medical advances have enabled many children born prematurely or with health issues such as heart defects, who would have died had they been born 50 or more years ago, to survive. Many thrive and live healthy and normal lives, but others live with significant disabilities throughout life such as mental retardation, cerebral palsy, etc. Also, adults are more likely to survive injuries or diseases that in their grandparents’ time would have killed them.
In the past, families were usually advised to place handicapped children in institutions (some state-operated, others private) or to send them away to special schools. Now, they more often stay at home and attend regular public schools. While I regard this as a good thing, it does of course mean that families who can’t afford to privately pay for the services disabled children or adults need will instead seek government-funded assistance. It also means public schools must seek more funding for special education services, to insure the “free and appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment” that federal law guarantees to children with disabilities.
These are just some of the factors that may make returning to the “good old days” of self- and family reliance not as easy or simple as some would like to think.
I’m guessing that, like me, most people who frequent this blog would like to see the balance of government vs. private largesse shift back in the direction of the private sector, though we may disagree on how far the shift should go and how quickly. But before such a shift is undertaken, we have to consider whether the private “safety net” we are proposing to restore has been weakened, and what can be done to strengthen it, lest more vulnerable people simply fall through those holes as well.
What are your thoughts on how to address this issue? Can you think of any other factors I might have overlooked that caused or accelerated the shift toward government dependency?