I shudder when folks praise Ronald Reagan’s definition of government as a national problem, just as I hate when lawmakers threaten to undermine Social Security or food stamp programs. After all, what critics smear as “big government” made all the difference in my life.
My father died when I was ten, and we carried on thanks to the help of modest Social Security survivor benefits and a small Veteran’s pension. I eventually finished high school, went on to college, seminary and married. We bought a home, got good work, raised three kids and continue paying taxes – contributing over the years many dollars more than I received. So I take issue when politicians attack government assistance for driving up the national debt and jeopardizing the U. S.’s fiscal future. The government that was big enough –and smart enough –to invest in me came out, in dollars alone, way ahead. And the debate is about more than just money.
Some politicians – running for office, locally, nationally and even the presidency –go on and on about how government aid – food stamps, unemployment and the like – destroys the work ethic, fosters dependency, lets people take advantage and turns recipients into a social drain. I didn’t fall into any of these social failures. I accepted the benefits as a vote of confidence, obligating me to work hard and advance myself. Of course some people take advantage of the system. But it’s wrong to deny all who deserve because a fraction of recipients doesn’t play fair. Besides, as my experience demonstrates, an investment in human resources is a wise investment in the future of our nation.
You see, attacking “big government” misses the main point; the real issue is not the size of government but what it does. For instance, when a hurricane, flood or tornado strikes a community, nothing but government can take the lead to restore homes, business and lives. When people break the law and punishment is deserved – good government takes care of that, too. We also need government to provide secure borders, armed forces, public safety, clean water and reliable roads and bridges. My personal experience demonstrates that there are times in life when our society must be the one to provide. So when it comes to the size of government, it should be just big enough to do what we need; it is a religious issue, too.
I am a rabbi and pastor to families “through all the hills and valleys of life,” as one of our seminary professors described. People invite clergy, like me, to share in profound and personal human ordeals. After all these years of providing pastoral care, support, prayer and counsel, I can say that, for each and every one of us across the religious and political spectrum, there comes a crisis point and a time to say, “I cannot do this alone, even with the support of loving family, faith and friends.” It could be after a hurricane, flood or tornado, gradual aging, the sudden death of a loved one or during a national economic setback that shatters a career and household. Just talk to the people about their grief. During mortal challenges such as these, the government is the only one to step in. So let’s gather the best social and economic minds, design a comprehensive and responsible plan, and capture the moral high ground that benefits us all.
Protecting the vulnerable is the central and most fundamental teaching of my faith and many other faiths. Three dozen times–repeated more than any teaching – is the biblical instruction to defend and support the widow, orphan and stranger, as if the Bible was written just to make sure a sound social safety net was in place. Of course, I recognize that hard work deserves to be compensated, people are entitled to enjoy what they earn, and taxes should be kept to the minimum. But it takes a community to survive and grow through challenging times; few of us can go it alone and our houses of worship have neither staff nor resources to provide the full and necessary spectrum of support. In the end, a national program that strengthens human capacity also strengthens the work force, the economy and the moral fabric of our households and communities.
I long ago repaid the government in dollars, and, like the vast majority, today contribute my share. I know that government does not have the capacity, responsibility or right to fix every flaw in every life. Yet, at the same time, it is in our individual and collective interest to help mitigate the financial problems that flow from an array of life crises and natural and social catastrophes.
RABBI DENNIS S. ROSS is an author, advocate and congregational rabbi. His book, All Politics is Religious: Speaking Faith to the Media, Policy Makers and Community is recently released by SkyLight Paths Publishing (www.SkyLightPaths.com), and his previous book, God in Our Relationships: Spirituality between People from the Teachings of Martin Buberis released by Jewish Lights Publishing. He has written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Jewish Daily Forward, and he blogs for Religion Dispatches and RH Reality Check.
Rabbi Ross directs Concerned Clergy for Choice for the Education Fund of Family Planning Advocates of New York State and consults to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. He is a rabbi at Congregation Beth Emeth in Albany, N. Y.