Saturday, September 24, 2005

Blog 3

Wendell Butler and I met in his office on the 8th floor of the 3M building in East St. Paul. I was there to ask him for money. I helped run a small social service agency that believed and knew (people research these things)that the distance between teen mothers and healthy, happy children can be bridged if they: 1) aren’t isolated, 2) know what to realistically expect from a 6 month old, a nine month ld, a 14 month old, etc.; 3) had the life skills that got them thinking about their future. Wendell was in the private sector, helping our cause along in a time when welfare reform was telling him that much of the work of being a safety net for poor families should be provided by the private sector as welfare reform moved folks from welfare to work. Wendell was a black man with a kind and straight-forward disposition. From my vantage point – a person begging him for money; a person who was paid probably four times less to beg him for money than he was to give it – I couldn’t tell whether he had ever been an oppressed black man; whether he was conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican. Even, rather he was rich or just middle class. But the conversation showed me what I really needed to know about him. The man had common sense. “I am,” he said during our conversation about how nonprofits would fare in a time of government cutbacks, “the biggest private social service funder in St. Paul. And no one has made a meeting with me to say, ‘we’re taking away the safety net from a couple tens of thousands poor people in St. Paul. What are you in for?” “Now,” he said. “I believe in the private sector taking responsibility for the public good. Of course I do. Why else would I do this? But until they show me that they have done the math about the private sector taking on the problems, I don’t believe them when they talk about the private sector stepping in.” Wendell Butler’s words have come back to me often in the years that I’ve examined the conservative and liberal approaches to the public good. I thought about Wendell Butler when a prof at the Humphrey Institute questioned whether the ultimate goal of the Bush administration was to have “faith-based air traffic control.” But I never thought about Wendell more than during Katrina. Watching the poor left behind, I thought to myself, “No one did the math. We have ___ million people in the delta. ___ million have cars. That leaves ___ million. Who’ll fill in the blank?” And, swear to God, I’m a liberal democrat, but private bus, public bus,Lutheran bus, born-again Christian bus, federal bus, state bus… I really wouldn’t have cared who picked them up. As long as someone had a plan. And we’ve all seen what sort of repercussions move through our conscience when no one does. Isn’t doing the math the least we can ask from our federal government? From their vantage point, where the public good can be seen? If it is an administration that believes in faith-based initiatives – and the people vote them in – isn’t the least we can ask is that that faith-based government do the math to understand how the whole job will get done under their model? If it’s a socialist government that gets elected, I’d ask the same thing. What % gets done from taxpayers’ dollars? What percentage from corporate philanthropy? From private wealth? From the donations of the citizenry? Isn’t that the least we can ask?

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