By Charlie Mitchell
OXFORD – Well, he put it out there. Since the time of Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society, a debate has rumbled over whether government aid programs kill private initiative. Conservatives say it does. Liberals either don’t care or insist it doesn’t.
The debate has been especially vigorous in states such as Mississippi, where a disproportionate number of people depend on income from government sources.
In his second inaugural address, President Obama told us how he feels. Here’s the quote:
“The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this nation great.”
You might want to read that again, perhaps a couple of times.
Some say the two epochs of American history are before the Civil War and since the Civil War. A wiser dividing point might be before and since the Great Depression when federal and state lawmakers decided to become more involved with individuals and with businesses.
We have traced this before. Mississippi was devastated by Mississippi River flooding in 1927. Not one red cent was allocated by Congress for relief. Not one red cent. Same for the San Francisco fire, the Johnstown flood, the Chicago fire and all similar tragedies. It was simply not considered a federal government role to help cities, states or individuals in such situations.
The shift has been 180 degrees.
Hurricane Katrina devastated Mississippi in 2005. Congress, with Thad Cochran and Trent Lott in power positions in the U.S. Senate (and their Republican colleague Haley Barbour in the governor’s office), opened the federal treasury to the state and its people. Depending on what’s included in the tally, at least $10 billion – twice the state’s entire annual general fund budget – poured in. Included were grants to homeowners who had no flood insurance (because their homes were not in declared flood zones).
Since Sandy late last year, Congress has anted up the better part of a $60 billion request for repairs and renovations in the New Jersey, New York region.
Government aid to and involvement with commerce, including agriculture, as well as individuals who need money for food, medicine or rent or who are unable to find jobs, has followed much the same path.
Rather than not helping or being expected to help, city, county and state governments and especially the feds have become the go-to resource. When a cold spell damages the orange crop, everyone expects government to take care of the farmers. When a bank or private pension fund is “too big to fail,” federal law now actually promises taxpayers will not let it. On and on.
Perhaps President Obama didn’t mean to make the connection, but his use of the word “takers” stood out. Remember, Mitt Romney was vilified after telling a group of donors that 47 percent of Americans were “takers,” meaning their only interest in government is what it could do for them.
Conservatives, unlike the liberal president, often take the position that government has, in fact, sucked the life out of initiative; that too few these days “hitch up their britches” (as Barbour would say) because they know government will send them a check, pay their bills, buy their food. (Of course, a problem is their analysis is almost exclusively applied to poverty programs and rarely to bailouts of Wall Street firms, which they often support.)
Anyway, the president’s position is that creating safety nets (for the rich and poor alike) actually frees us to be creative. His take is that if we know we won’t starve, we might be more likely, in his words, to take risks.
The president didn’t settle the debate.
On one hand, many agricultural enterprises as well as companies such as Chrysler, Ford and General Motors have benefitted from being “takers” as have manufacturers in Mississippi, including Nissan and Toyota.
On the other, there’s no discounting a surge in single-parent households has tracked programs where the lower the household income, the greater the aid provided.
President Obama does not mask his belief that wealth distribution is good for America, good for Americans.
Not many people listened to the speech; fewer parsed it for key phrases. But he told us where he stands and why. Those who see things differently might consider doing the same. Were we a better country before Social Security? Medicare? Medicaid? Was it better when everyone was left to fend for themselves?
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.