Government no panacea for our ills

August 18, 1996|By Elise Armacost

I HAVE EMERGED from The Sun's "Voices Across America" series feeling a bit more charitable toward the brave souls who run for public office. This is ironic, considering that the series was basically a seven-part diatribe by middle Americans along U.S. 40 against their elected leaders.

Government at all levels is far from perfect, we all know that. But its inefficiencies and occasional scandals are not the sole, nor perhaps the main, reason for the disaffection documented in this series.

Government has become the whipping boy for every problem that ails us, from the struggle to make ends meet to the lack of respect among youth to quality of the movies at the local theater.

Government cannot win, and not just because it cannot cure all these ills. It cannot win because people find fault both when it tries to cope and when it lets bad enough alone.

Struggling blue-collar workers on Baltimore County's east side complain that government "has taken control of our lives." Nonetheless, they want their elected leaders to do something about the technological changes that are making them obsolete.

Howard countians bemoan an increase of juvenile crime resulting from the demise of the two-parent family, but criticize government institutions that try to pick up where the family has left off.

In one breath, the voices call for government support of the traditional family through incentives to businesses that offer job-sharing, flex time and the like; with the next, they rail against government intrusiveness.

People want government at once to solve their problems and stay out of their lives. It simply cannot be done.

Nor can any elected leader or government body provide a return to the simpler days we knew as children, when both parents didn't have to work, the pace was slower, jobs lasted a lifetime, communities were more homogeneous and therefore less complicated.

A letter writer in today's Carroll County edition of The Sun, waxing nostalgic for the days when workers made good livings at factories and steel mills, suggests government should "dump or postpone technology" to put folks back to work.

Technology changes

But government cannot stop, or be blamed for, technological advances that are costing blue-collar jobs, any more than it could prevent the automobile from ending the horse-and-buggy era.

The clock cannot be turned back, which is not to say that traditional values cannot be revived. But three decades of economic and cultural change cannot be wiped out, nor in many cases should we wish it to be. The improved status of minorities, increased opportunities for women, the seriousness with which we treat various kinds of domestic abuse and mental illnesses, the mind-boggling capabilities of computers -- these have improved the lives of millions of Americans.

However, these changes have made society more complex. If people expect their elected leaders to make it simple again, no wonder they are disillusioned.

At the root of Main Street's disaffection with government is something else, too: a woeful lack of knowledge about how government works and what it's actually doing. Misinformation is rampant.

The ubiquitous notion that welfare is busting the federal budget is only the most glaring example. Aid to Families with Dependent Children (the cash aid known as welfare) accounts for 1 percent of the budget.

Food stamps, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income and child nutrition programs amount to another 8 percent. The Middle River warehouse supervisor who complained to a Sun reporter that one-third of his paycheck goes to social programs is simply wrong.

In Cumberland, folks feel abandoned by government -- although they're surrounded by government projects designed to rescue them from the economic devastation caused by the loss of private manufacturing.

An understanding of the differences between local, state and federal governments is hazy at best. Because headlines and high school civics classes focus on Washington, people equate all government with the federal government, which is the most detached from their lives.

They don't know who or how to lobby closer to home for things that would make a difference to their quality of life -- more police officers to make their communities safer, computers for their kids' classrooms, stronger efforts to attract good jobs.

Such knowledge is power. Without it, we can't expect to get the most out of government. Even with it, we can't expect guaranteed prosperity, perfect solutions and the life our parents knew.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 8/18/96

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