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Zirpoli: Shifting views on who benefits from government assistance in the United States | COMMENTARY

Americans are welcoming government help from a pandemic that has closed thousands of small businesses and pushed many American families into poverty. In the1960s, according to Pew Research, “more than three in four Americans said they trusted the government.” This enabled the government to do big things like enforce clean water and air regulations, get lead-based paint out of our homes, and pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to name a few.

However, trust in the government was diminished by the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights Protests, and the assassinations of President John Kennedy and Martin Luther King. The only good news in that decade was when America landed a man on the moon in 1969.

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In addition, businesses didn’t appreciate being monitored and regulated, so it was imperative for them that trust in the government be diminished. In 1981, Ronald Reagan campaigned on the idea that we could not depend on the government to help us. In fact, he said that the government was the problem. It was a catchy campaign phrase and a nod to those who wanted to do away with government initiatives and regulations that helped working families but hurt the bottom line for businesses and the well-connected.

It is interesting that the folks telling us that the government can’t help us are the same folks trying to get elected into government positions. If they don’t believe the government can do anything to help our nation and its citizens, why do you want to be a part of the government, never mind in a leadership position?

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It is also interesting that these same folks are always trying to reduce the efficiency of government services, then turn around and complain about the inefficiency of the government. A case in point today is the U.S. Post Office. They set up these agencies to fail so that they can sell the idea that the government can’t do anything.

We depend on the federal government to help us after national emergencies. We maintain a military for our collective defense. We have federal agencies for trade, commerce, and finance. We support public education. We build national highways. We regulate airlines and other transportation options to keep us safe. We maintain water systems and regulate industries that would pollute our air.

For those who fear socialism, I have news for you: We crossed that bridge decades ago. Our federal taxes support veterans hospitals, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment benefits, and more. Together we pay for roads, bridges, and our national park system. Collective revenue used for the common good for the benefit of all.

Except for Texas, the rest of us can count on electricity from a national electric grid that provides backup in times of emergencies. Isolated, the Texas grid didn’t hold up in a winter storm and their citizens were literally left in the dark and cold. Being off the national grid may sound romantic and free, but there are efficiencies in being part of a larger society. The highway interstate system, built by the federal government, is just one example of this. On the other hand, 50 states doing their own thing has been a deadly strategy for over 530,000 Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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According to the Brookings Institute, the size of the federal workforce is pretty much the same today as it was in 1960, despite the addition of more departments, agencies, and challenges not foreseen 40 to 60 years ago. Indeed, Congress has starved federal agencies like the IRS to the point where they don’t have the personnel to investigate citizens who aren’t paying taxes. Meanwhile, our roads, bridges, and other infrastructure systems are crumbling and our national debt grows. The rich have the resources to take care of themselves. Those who suffer from these broken and inefficient systems are ordinary Americans.

The question is not if the government will play a part in our national experience. It does and always will. The question is for whom should this involvement benefit? During the last 50 years, the benefits have shifted mostly to the rich in the form of tax cuts and deregulation. As a result, the rich have become richer and the gap between the rich and the rest of us continues to grow exponentially.

Perhaps it is time, once again, for the government to work for all Americans, not just for the rich who contribute to the campaigns of those who are happy to return the favor. It has been 40 years since Reagan blamed the government for our troubles. Perhaps some Americans are starting to appreciate the real motive for that diversion.

Tom Zirpoli is the program coordinator of the Human Services Management graduate program at McDaniel College. He writes from Westminster. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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