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If there’s one topic that distinguishes left from right in the American political psyche, it’s the role of government in supporting the standard of living of disadvantaged or vulnerable groups.
If you're a progressive or Democrat, you're bound to be more favorable to expanding government's social welfare role than if you're a conservative or Republican.
This is such a truism that it is nearly tautological.
A big part of what makes people “progressives” is their receptiveness to the expansion of government's role in ensuring social welfare. A big part of what makes people “conservatives” is their resistance to the same.
This contrast shapes a great many of our public policy debates today. For while everyone agrees that poor or disadvantaged people ought to be helped, honest people can disagree about the best ways to accomplish this.
Who or what should be the primary agent of the help/change?
For example, should the federal government give more people food stamps; bring more people onto the Medicaid rolls; expand Head Start to more children? Should we more or less perpetually increase both government spending on social programs and government’s range of activity and responsibility with respect to social programs?
These are all profound national questions. But the smallest, most local decisions are forged out of the very same philosophical clashes.
In the Western Pennsylvania school district where I serve as a school board director, we faced a decision recently that brought all of these problems to the fore. A proposal was made that the district should get involved in providing food packages to poor families to make sure the children have enough food for the weekend. There was discussion about starting a program, funded privately but administered by the district, wherein teachers would “discreetly” place the care packages in students' back packs on Fridays.
Now, there is a perfectly understandable reason why the district has an interest in this matter. Foremost among them is the fact that studies seem to suggest (and it stands to reason) that hungry kids do worse in school. In addition, no one wants to have children going hungry in our district.
So, after a short presentation of the plan and a slightly longer discussion, we had to vote on whether to implement the program in our school.
To make a short story even shorter, I voted against it—not because I don't feel for the poor families or accept the notion that it's generally better for the district not to have hungry kids every Monday.
I voted against it because I simply believe that such a program goes too far afield of our core mission and purpose, which is to educate children. I happen to think there are reasonable limits to the things with which the district should directly concern itself, and on which it should expend money or effort.
We are a school district, not a social services department. Therefore I'd like to see the teachers concentrate on teaching and not being part-time social workers, put in a position of having to decide who needs care packages and devising ways of sneaking them into back packs to avoid embarrassing anyone.
Do I care about the hungry children? I do, indeed. That's why I and my family devote considerable time and treasure to church programs and other relevant charities. But I don't believe that providing weekend food care packages is the school district’s responsibility, nor do I believe that schools are best suited to manage the problem in question.
If you disagree, I urge you to consider where the logic leads. Hungry children do worse in school, so the school should do extraordinary things to feed them. OK, but children with bad parents also do worse in school.
Is it the school’s role to instruct families on parenting skills? If it turns out that students with pets do better in school, should the school then dole out dogs and cats?
Suppose studies showed that students in traditional mother-father families or those that attend church regularly do better. Should the teachers directly insert themselves in ensuring parents don’t get divorced or in encouraging church attendance? Should they be sneaking marriage self-help books or bibles into children’s back packs? Oh the humanity!
Voting against the measure doesn’t make me less caring about disadvantaged children. It simply means I don’t believe schools should be agents of the welfare state. It also means I reject the idea that the only way to improve the standard of living of the disadvantaged is through the incessant expansion of government-centered programs. In short, it means I’m a conservative.
By the way, the measure passed overwhelmingly. Nowadays, keeping government limited—even at the most local level—appears to be an uphill battle.