On Government Aid Packages
Thus far in the pandemic the House and Senate have passed, and the President signed, two massive aid packages. These have included help for small businesses, a boost for those receiving unemployment compensation, and checks directed at individuals whose income falls below a certain ceiling.
There has been the predictable complaining about slowness of money getting to its intended targets, inept systems and crashing websites, as well as stories about those (e.g. the Los Angeles Lakers NBA team) getting small business loans when they certainly aren’t the shopkeeper on Main Street trying pay this month’s rent.
But my point is a different one. When we talk about “government aid packages” we aren’t talking about money that comes from some vast and faceless entity that has deigned to notice the need and suffering of the huddled masses. We are talking about material aid that is coming, in good part, from citizens to other citizens. The “government” is the means by which we share with and support our fellow citizens who need help. It is, as those signs on construction projects say, “your tax dollars at work.”
It is easy to lose sight of this amid the political bickering and the sheer scale of such undertakings. It is easy to come to think of “the government” as an abstraction that has nothing really to do with you or me. Granting both the politics and tendency to abstraction, it seems to me worth reminding ourselves that this is us.
Which is one reason that President Trump’s insistence that his signature go on every relief check, while wholly predictable, is galling.
Moreover, the ideas behind such mutual aid have a very long and noteworthy history among us. Aboard the good ship Arbella in 1630, John Winthrop, who would become the first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony delivered a sermon to his fellow pilgrims titled, “A Modell of Christian Charity.” Withrop addressed himself to the perils ahead and to what must be done so that the whole venture does not end up like a shipwreck.
Winthrop said, in part, “Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck and to provide for our posterity is to follow the Counsel of Micah [the 8th century biblical prophet], to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God, for this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man, we must entertain each other in brotherly Affection, we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities, we must uphold a familiar Commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality, we must delight in each other, make others’ Conditions our own . . .” (acknowledgement and apology for the male language, but there is value in quoting the original)
When you come right down to it these “government aid packages” are the current means for us, “To abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities.” It is a phrase I’ve found both eloquent and moving since I first read it as a college student.
Yes, ours is an imperfect system, one that is gamed by some and systemically unfair to others. Still, it exists. Still, we make the effort to “make others Conditions our own,” and still it matters.
It is true, of course, that such government aid packages and programs are not the only ways in which we seek to provide for one another in times of need. Community food banks are serving long lines. Hospitals are caring for people who can’t pay the bill. The literal surplus of farmers is being converted and transported to provide for those lacking life’s necessities. Doubtless many other sorts of direct aid efforts are taking place as well, and more will in the months to come. And, yes, in many respects the more personal, on-the-ground, person-to-person, assistance may be more gratifying for being personal.
And yet, we continue, however fragile the ties may be, to be “knit together in this work.”
In our times, “government” has frequently been vilified and declared to be “the enemy.” This has been good politics, at least for some. But it has been lousy for our sense of patriotism and it has blinded us to the ways we honor values that can be traced to our origins.
All of this is not a reason to be smug or self-satisfied, but it is a reminder of one of the better parts of our story as a people and a nation. As Samuel Johnson said, “Never be afraid to remind people of the obvious, it is what they have most forgot.”