At a forum last night for Rhode Island gubernatorial candidates (organized by the Economic Progress Institute and held at the Ocean State Theatre in Warwick, RI), one of the participants emphasized a point that all of us would do well to remember. It is worth taking a moment to appreciate State Treasurer Gina Raimondo’s repeated insistence that “This is not about charity,” when talking about tax-supported public programs from Head Start to libraries to affordable housing to the state’s health insurance exchange.
As Raimondo pointed out, these and other programs should instead be considered investments in the state’s future.
Certainly there are times when charity is the right response to a problem, and just about all of us do make charitable gifts of various kinds.
But the fundamental reason we all contribute to pay for schools, parks, buses, libraries, and so forth is to make our communities and our lives better. The systems and institutions we have collectively created are foundations of both economic prosperity and quality of life. Businesses couldn’t function without court systems to settle disputes, air travel wouldn’t be safe without an FAA to keep flights orderly, towns wouldn’t be the same without their public parks, and so forth. Over decades and generations, Americans have created these public structures and institutions, and they are an important part of why life has been good in this country.
Even programs that may seem only to be for certain segments of the population (children, sick individuals, families that can’t afford a market-price apartment) are still ultimately beneficial to all of us. They make it more likely that children will be able to perform well in school and become productive, self-supporting adults; they reduce economic blight that contributes to crime and other social problems; they create better workforces that attract businesses to an area; and so forth.
In tough economic times when tax revenues are low we may need to make some very difficult choices about how to spend our tax money. But we shouldn’t shoot ourselves in the foot by automatically cutting the “optional” programs that are “only” about keeping people fed, housed, educated, healthy and so forth. These programs aren’t about charity – they’re investments in our future.