Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Education and Health - Fundamental Rights

We have been bludgeoned over the past few years with the Republican’s mantra that if you haven’t made it, it’s your fault (see my post, “The Mendaciousness of the Responsibility Game”).  So it was with a huge feeling of nostalgia that I was reminded recently of a time not so long ago when a large segment of Republicans had a very different perspective on life and the role of government, or at least the role of the broader society.

In reviewing a new biography of Nelson Rockefeller, the reviewer noted Rockefeller’s credo, “If you don’t have good education and good health, then I feel society has let you down.”  WOW!  How times have changed.

If someone said that today, even if a Democrat said that today, they would be viewed as a left-wing radical.  It sounds so over the top.

But it isn’t.  Let me quote, as I often do, from the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . .”

If one is going to have a meaningful right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, certainly two of the most essential elements of that right are having a good education and having good health.  No one would argue with that.

But the Declaration goes further and states that the purpose of government is to secure these rights, which in this context would mean access to good education and access to good health.  I am not downplaying the importance of personal responsibility.  As the old saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”  But it is the government’s responsibility to provide the water.

So at a minimum, the government is responsible under this standard for supplying access to a good education (meaning good schools, good teachers, etc.) and good health (meaning comprehensive health care ... medical, psychological, and dental ... that is affordable or free, depending on your circumstances).  Note: Obamacare has not come close to providing the latter because although the basic premiums may be affordable due to government subsidies, the large deductibles and out-of-pocket caps of the basic plans discourage people from getting health care except in emergencies.

If that is the minimum, you might ask, what else is there?  While good schools can make a huge difference even in the midst of a bad inner-city neighborhood, growing up in an area where poverty, drugs, and crime are the norm and often impact family life creates major obstacles to being able to take advantage of a good school.  

Government, together with private agencies and organizations, must do much more to improve the broader context within which such children grow up.  Whether it’s creating more jobs, providing adult education, making prisons focus on rehabilitation, creating social policies that encourage two-parent households (as opposed to the old welfare rule that broke up families by penalizing them if an adult male was living in the household) ... there are ample ways that government and society working together could dramatically change the context of inner-city life.

It is time for Rockefeller’s credo to become the credo of government and of our society.  It is past time for this great, rich, but unconscionably unequal, nation to live up to the promise stated in the Declaration of Independence.