15 August 2009

Steve Benen had a post in today’s Washington Monthly that tickled the back of my mind on an issue I’ve been pondering for months:  the issue of our General Welfare and the sheer number of U.S. citizens living today.

I’ll start with Benen’s article.  He writes about citizen Katy Abram, who faced off with Senator Arlen Specter at a Town Hall meeting on health reform.  Like Benen, I choose Abram not to pick on her, but because she is at least articulate about her concerns, rather than screaming them across a crowded room in order to drown out the opposing views; I also think her concerns typify those of a significant minority of conservative Americans.

Katy Abram fears health reform will assist in “dismantling” this country.  She was able to phrase her concerns in a reasonable if passionate manner, and asked Specter, "What are you going to do to restore this country back to what our founders created according to the Constitution?"  This brought applause in the Town Hall meeting, and in an MSNBC interview later, she amplified,

"I mean, I — you know, yes, I mean, there are programs in place that, you know, the — the founders did not want to have here. The — you know, I know that there are people out there that can’t afford health insurance, that can’t afford a lot of different things. And, you know, with the founders, they had — they thought and hoped that the goodness of the people would allow the people to take care of those who could — who were doing without.

While Benen’s article focused on the issue of uninformed conservative folk heroes (which apparently Abram has become) featured as political talk show guests, my interest is in this idea of Americans expressing this desire to return to some Constitutional Never-Never Land, presumably to honor our Founder’s vision, but also to return to some fantasy of a more pure American society.  Abrams was somewhat more articulate than some of the screaming Town Hall protesters we’ve seen in the last weeks, but wasn’t all that far from the woman at the Arkansas Town Hall meeting on August 6th, who sobbed “I want my America back!”

What America, I could ask?  Is there even one “real” America? and has there ever been?  But that’s another discussion.

Back to my somewhat amorphous topic.  What does the Constitution actually say about health reform or the public welfare?  Not much, but it does say this:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Emphasis mine, because this key concept in the preamble to the Constitution frames my understanding of why it is appropriate for the Federal Government to get involved in the lives of its citizens.  The general welfare, to my mind, includes the health of communities in our nation, and the literal and figurative health of its human members.  That means having the government help people from falling through the cracks.  And it’s the proper interest of the government – federal, state or local – because if too many people fall through the cracks, the local community and nation as a whole are both much less stable.  Less healthy, if you will.

When someone like Abram claims we need to get back to the way things used to be, I think they imagine something unrealistic in today’s world, that all the community’s social needs can be taken care of through volunteerism.  As she more or less said in the excerpt above,

… the founders … thought and hoped that the goodness of the people would allow the people to take care of those who … were doing without.

Now, I don’t know one way or another what the founders thought about taking care of those who were doing without.  What I do know is that however it looked in the late 18th century, the landscape of American society is very different in the 21st.

This is where a look at the numbers becomes important.

Take a community of 50 or a hundred people. When someone’s health or finances (or any number of other issues) gets rocky, it’s not too hard for their fellow citizens to step in and lend a hand, provide support, give leg-up or whatever it takes.  And I think Katy Abrams, who maintains faith in people’s desire to help, to volunteer, is right to think that we can rely on people’s good intentions to deal with those who are “doing without.”

When the community is bigger, say a thousand people, it’s still a small enough number that folks can keep an eye out for each other, but it’s a little harder to coordinate, and there are also a larger number of people in need.  But still, it’s quite possible for the community to take care of its own.

When that group jumps to a city of five or ten thousand people, things start to change.  It’s harder to see who is in need, it’s harder to coordinate, and the sheer numbers of people in need is much higher.  At that point, the citizens pool their resources through some kind of group effort organized by, say, the City Council or the Health Department or some other small government agency.  Doesn’t cut out citizen involvement, but the government backing of the effort to help the needy makes it more possible to spot the need, address it, and keep people from falling through the cracks.

When you are dealing with a major city of 100,000 or better, involvement of the government in taking care of those in need is absolutely required, or it just doesn’t happen.  No one neighborhood, church, or volunteer group can take care of everybody at that point.  It’s time for the city or county or state government to step in, not to interfere or control, but to do what it’s supposed to be doing:  provide a citizen-based coordinated effort to help the citizenry take care of its self.  The government, after all, is US, its members drawn from our own ranks, not interlopers from some other universe.

People like me and Katy Abrams and a number of other good souls can volunteer up a storm, but it still won’t be enough.  More numbers:  Let’s say in our village of 100 people, there are 3 very needy folks who just can’t do it by themselves.  That’s 3 percent of the population.  I have no idea how this relates to actual numbers of people in need, but for the point of illustration, I’ll pick 3 percent.

In the town of a thousand, we now have 30 needy people. In the town of ten thousand, we offer our help to 300 people. In the city of 100,000, that’s 3,000 folks who need a helping hand.  In a major metropolis of a million, that’s 30,000 of our citizens.

And in a country of 310 million citizens, we wind up with a very large number of people:  some nine million or better.  And I doubt this reflects the real percentage of people in need – I think I’m ballparking very low here.

We need more than volunteerism.  No doubt about it, and America has rightfully taken pride in our history of helping ourselves.  But it’s not enough.  We also need our government to step in and help us all take care of each other.  And that, I think is totally supported by the Constitution which advises us, demands of us, to consider the general welfare of our nation to be a the center of our reason for having a government in the first place.

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