To seek to help others is, for the vast majority of individuals, a basic human instinct. We want to comfort the afflicted, aid the helpless, protect the vulnerable, shelter the homeless, and feed the hungry whenever this is humanly possible. This laudable aspect of our humanity combines with our simple desire for self-preservation to produce many of our governmental structures and policies, and we have typically—but not always—demanded some degree of self-reliance and personal responsibility in exchange for all manner of aid and protection.
However, as much as some might fervently wish it to be otherwise, no government yet devised can protect us against the consequences of every tragedy, personal mistake, fear, or plain discomfort. We cannot outlaw natural disasters or man-made stupidity, although we can—and should—always try to lessen their impacts upon both individuals and communities.
Therefore, the many catastrophes caused in American today by all the “help” our government provides are truly a Greek tragedy of mind-boggling proportions. Our prideful efforts to provide the most perfect forms of government possible have instead produced family dysfunction, community chaos, state fiscal crises, and national gridlock—all with the added “benefits” of punishing personal initiative and rewarding irresponsibility. Sophocles would be proud.
Over the past half-century of liberal hubris, we have watched as government in all its glory has pursued a variety of well-meaning but ultimately misguided policies. These have caused the costs of housing, education, and medical care to spiral out of control while supposedly improving affordability, simultaneously increased both taxes and public debt, and screwed up capitalism so badly that now young people somehow now find socialism an attractive alternative to our present punitively expensive system. In addition, half of our nation seems to be angry at the other half, our public schools fail to adequately educate the majority of our children, and the legacy costs of big and bigger government—retiree pensions and healthcare—are bankrupting many of our cities and states.
The problems are basic. Compassion exercised by individuals, private charities, and faith communities is compelled to live within dollars and cents realities that government can easily circumvent by continually raising taxes or taking on more public debt. In addition, the heavy hand of government tends to alter the cost/benefit ratios of a whole range of human behaviors, which later requires yet more government interventions to “fix” the problems its own programs created in the first place. The old adage that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” has never been more true than when the wonders of government goodness are involved.
In American we see this cycle most vividly within the four walls of our own homes—and the brunt of the problems are borne by our children.
The U.S. Census has amply quantified the astonishing increase in single parent households (most of which are headed by women) over the past fifty years, and this has repeatedly been correlated with worsened educational, emotional, and economic outcomes for children who grow up with only one parent. This trend has been accelerated by all manner of public aid that has served to allow one of the parents—typically the man—to shirk financial and parental responsibilities owed to their children by forcing the taxpayers to raise the offspring whom those parentsconveniently forget. By decoupling reproduction from responsibility, government “help” has perversely only helped generations of families to deal with yet more of the dysfunctions that are typically—but not always—inherent in single parent households.
The net outcome of the startling increase in the number of single parent households—enabled and accelerated by the government assistance that makes this living arrangement possible for parent and child—has been the equally startling growth of government programs and bureaucracies set up to battle the many problems caused by those other government programs and bureaucracies that initially supported the maintenance of single parent households. Got that? This self-reinforcing loop of government “help” has now destroyed families and communities on a scale that would make even the cruelest tyrant proud, and the perpetuation of single parent households across generations continues to wreak havoc and compels taxpayers to subsidize an ever-widening circle of personal injury and societal harm. Now that roughly 1/3 of American children live with either a single parent or an unmarried couple—a separate arrangement that provides its own unique blend of issues and insecurities—we should not be overly surprised by the many problems afflicting our nation’s young and their overwhelmed parents.
As the number of single parent households has risen, we have seen the inexorable march of the pathologies associated with the poverty, instability, and trauma that often impacts both parent and child. Rates of anxiety, depression, suicide, drug use, physical and sexual abuse, hunger, homelessness, self-harm, and sexually-transmitted diseases have reached epidemic levels for both children and adults. Although many times these problems can be attributed to unique personal circumstances or local economic conditions, their sheer number speaks to the rot within the foundation of our society—the family unit. If families fail to thrive, it is impossible to for a community to flourish. The most expensive home in the world will collapse if it is built upon sand.
The defenders of our expansive social welfare state will, of course, assert that they are doing God’s work by helping those who cannot otherwise help themselves. It is an interesting “chicken or egg” argument: Has government helped to create dependency or merely helped those who must depend upon the government?
One could use the pernicious persistence of generational poverty, for example, to argue either side of the issue. Those who support the programs that provide food, healthcare, and housing to the poor will whistle up all manner of learned experts who will confidently proclaim that entrenched and pervasive inequality condemns many to lives filled with desperation, and it is the role of government to relieve their suffering. However, others might point out that programs that provide for all the needs and wants of the poor without the bother of work are a disincentive to developing the self-reliance and self-discipline necessary to provide for oneself and one’s family. In specific circumstances both viewpoints likely have some validity, and the endless haggling over the shape and scope of welfare reform that has consumed so much attention over the decades points to the near-impossibility of both discontinuing government programs once they are started and convincing people that work is better than sloth when there is little or no price to pay for living life on the couch.
I sometimes see the broad outlines of this debate when I listen to educators bewailing the many difficulties of teaching children and adolescents raised in our nation’s many troubled homes. Many of these students walk into the classroom completely uninterested in the curriculum being offered because they cannot connect with the idea that education is the key to a better future for reasons that are obvious to them—“we’re doing just fine right now with the checks my family has been getting from the government since before I was born.” Therefore, why should they bother reading a book, writing an essay, or solving a math problem? Having had few—if any—examples in their lives of adults engaged with the real world of work and taking pride in their own accomplishments, school is at best an opportunity to hang out with friends and at worst an incredible irritant.
To this extent, those who blame families for the failures of their children are correct. As much as many may denigrate the notion of role models, we can unfortunately predict much—but not all—from observing the adults who influence a child’s daily life. For this reason, teachers can play a key part in changing the lives of these children by opening their eyes to a world of possibilities that have heretofore been closed to them—but this is too often a sad struggle against a host of familial and parental influences that are pulling in exactly the opposite direction.
Government can protect the public in a variety of ways that provide a bulwark against disasters that can be neither foreseen nor readily prevented. However, government and its representatives must be keenly aware that the more they help—and the longer the duration of this help—the more likely it is that harm will be the final outcome of their best efforts. Worse yet, this harm will continue throughout the generations yet to come.