Government struggles to help us from cradle to grave

Note: This is the first of two columns by Eric Schansberg. The second part appears in Saturday’s paper.

Government is supposed to help individuals with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Using this metric, let’s see how our government often struggles and how people are damaged as a result, especially the most vulnerable in society.

We’ll look at a host of economic and social policies, chronologically — from before the cradle to beyond the grave.

Before the cradle, we start with abortion, where life is snuffed out before it reaches the cradle. Archaic knowledge of science and certain metaphysical views can lead one to believe that life does not begin in the womb.

But if one has any doubts, we should obviously err on the side of life, rather than risking fatal errors. (We must go “beyond a reasonable doubt” to put the most serious criminals to death. Why not the same “reasonable” standard here?)

A civilized society should protect the vulnerable. But abortion has a disproportionate effect on the poor and “disadvantaged” minorities. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, 42 percent of abortions are for women below the poverty line; 30 percent are black; 25 percent are Hispanic. At present, there is a great focus on blacks and the police. But hundreds more are killed by citizens and thousands more are killed by abortion.

Once out of the womb, we offer “welfare” policies to poorer parents and children — redistribution of wealth based on income and family structure. As a society, we want to help those with fewer resources in more vulnerable family structures — most notably, single-parent households.

The problem is that when you provide big resources for those in state X, you inevitably encourage people to enter and remain in state X. As such, our policies have encouraged the poor and lower middle class to bear and raise children in single-parent households. The resulting family instability has caused a range of serious, long-term problems for these children.

Charles Murray ably describes this in his book “Coming Apart.” In the middle- and upper-income classes, marriage and two-parent households have faded a bit over the past 40 years but have generally remained strong. But in the lower income classes, the vast majority of children are born and raised in single-parent households — the new norm.

With childhood, we have our government’s education system. In pre-kindergarten, government offers Head Start for disadvantaged children. Unfortunately, research has shown that it’s quite expensive ($8,000 per student) and generally ineffective.

For kindergarten through Grade 12, parents usually are offered a free education at the government-run school in their neighborhood. The education is free, but the school is assigned. Poorer people, as a captive audience, are prone to abuse by the monopoly power of the local school. Where else can they go?

Of course, there are profound challenges in teaching within poorer areas. They have a far higher concentration of the social pathologies that generally follow from the single-parent households subsidized by the government.

Still, one would not expect a government-run entity with tremendous monopoly power to be the height of efficiency or effectiveness.

Eric Schansberg, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Indiana University Southeast. Send comments to [email protected].