I closed a speech recently invoking the memory of Hubert Humphrey. I reminded the audience I was addressing that it was our former senator who said “...that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life – the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”
More and more, when I reference Minnesota’s most famous senator and first vice-president, people don’t know who he was. It didn’t surprise me then, after this recent talk, when an audience member approached me and asked me to spell Humphrey’s name. What did surprise me was this young person’s shock that there once was a time when politicians actually campaigned – and won – on a platform that ensured a social safety net for our most vulnerable citizens. This was a notion as alien to the person I was talking to as the birthers’ belief that President Obama isn’t American is to – well, as that notion is to all rationale people.
The fact that some people are surprised by the very concept of government playing a role in our lives shows just how far this country has shifted to the right. And I’ve changed as well. When quoting this famous remark now, I find myself modifying the original statement to talk about the moral test of society – not just the moral test of government – to care for our community’s most vulnerable.
I may be one of a dying few who actually believe there is a legitimate and necessary place for government. I like having roads that take me to work and parks that offer me the opportunity to forget about the workplace. I like having airplanes that almost always land and food – that despite all the recent food safety issues – rarely makes me sick. I feel secure knowing I can call the police or the fire department in an emergency and I absolutely love seeing children waiting for buses to take them to public schools. I always wonder, when listening to the most extreme tea-partiers, how they think society would function with no government. That said, government does not solely carry the responsibilities of society.
Those of us who are capable, who are healthy and who have been given opportunities, have a responsibility to care for ourselves and others who might need our support. I am a raging advocate for personal responsibility. But for those amongst us who can’t climb to even the bottom rung on the ladder of success, there must be safeguards in place to protect them. The government has a role to play in this, but so do the private and nonprofit sectors.
The three great engines of society – the public, private and nonprofit sectors – need to come together with a goal of working collaboratively and comprehensively to address the needs of those who Humphrey so eloquently placed in the dawn, the twilight and the shadows of life. These sectors should convene national, state and local summits to look at the gaps in care and service for these populations and then establish shared goals to address those gaps. The public sector can use its bully pulpit to increase awareness of the needs in society and then lead this multi-sector initiative. The private sector can support initiatives through a greater commitment to corporate volunteerism and philanthropy. The nonprofit sector can create innovative and cost-effective programs that fill the void left by cuts in public funding.
This is the moral test of society. Will we care and support those less fortunate than us, or will we let self interest set the course for our future?