Why Government?

As we head for the polls in just seven days, two things seem clear: the role of government in serving the needs of society is being called into question to a degree not seen since the New Deal; and our national debate about social policy has turned less civil, more angry, than anything we have experienced since the Great Depression.

On both counts, how should we respond? Last week PCG held an open meeting of our board on the topic, “Sacrificing the Principles of Democracy: The Impact of the Illinois Budget Crisis,” which might help to answer at least the first of these two questions.

We asked panelists to respond to a Statement on Government in which Franklin Gamwell, PCG Board member and Professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, asserts that “government’s task is to promote the empowerment of its citizens.…[I have in mind] conditions of safety, health and self-respect; material goods and the opportunity to work; education, cultural richness; beauty and integrity in the environment…” He explicitly rejects “the principle of minimal government restricted mainly to protecting liberty.”

John Bouman, head of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, observed that many of us who envision a government that empowers its people are skilled at analyzing individual areas of expenditure: the need for children’s services, or social programs for the elderly. What we are not so good at, he noted, is telling the larger narrative. Some of us will always need a helping hand. Government programs will always be needed to provide equal opportunity. And all of us will be better off if each of us is better off.

Celena Roldan, Executive Director, Erie Neighborhood House, documented the degree to which Illinois’ financial collapse is decimating the capacity of government to empower. She described her personal pain in having to consider cutting off child care services for working mothers, including a woman who said, “I can’t work if I don’t have child care. There is no Plan B.” Nor do alternatives exist for the 60,000 individuals who are losing mental health treatment or the additional 20,000 developmentally disabled people who will stay on waiting lists indefinitely under the budget now in effect for the current year.

Brenda Russell, former director, Illinois Department of Employment Security, commented how easy it is for us to forget that “democracy is ours; it belongs to all of us.” In the context of the Illinois budget crisis, I took her to be saying that as we fail to meet the most basic needs of so many, we are sacrificing the principles of democracy itself. Why? Because there comes a point at which if people must struggle just to meet the basic needs of subsistence, they no longer really have a voice. In effect, democracy no longer belongs to them.

As for how to respond to the incivility, or worse, that characterizes our national debate, there is no easy answer. I personally find it helpful to recall the passage many of us know by heart but rarely relate to the world of political discourse. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrong-doing, but rejoices in the truth.” (Cor. 13: 4-7)

We will, of course, not always agree in our political debates. But we are all, especially our public officials, called upon to respond to each other with civility, indeed, with the patience which has its foundation in Christian love. Perhaps this is worth remembering as we head to the polls on November 2 and in the difficult days and months that lie ahead.

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