What’s Best for America?
The President and Congress argue about what is best for the country.
How would you answer these questions?
- A mother does not have enough money to buy food for her children. Should the U.S. government help her?
- Air pollution remains a problem in many U.S. cities. Should the U.S. government require these cities to spend money to improve air quality?
- Students in many industrialized countries do better in math and science than U.S. students. Should the U.S. adopt nationwide learning standards for our schools?
How did you answer? Is it the responsibility of the U.S. government to solve such problems?
That last question is at the heart of a major debate taking place in Washington, D.C., and around the country. President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, and the Republican leaders of Congress strongly disagree on the answer. This leads to a bigger question: What role should the U.S. government play in our lives?
What is the Answer?
Most Republicans say that the U.S. government should play a small role. They say that it has become too large, too costly, and too powerful. Many tasks now being done by the federal (national) government should be done at the state and local level instead. Other tasks should be left to individuals or businesses, say many Republicans. "The [U.S.] government is out of touch and out of control," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican who presided over the House of Representatives under President Clinton. "It is in need of deep and deliberate change."
Clinton and most Democrats disagree. They say that the U.S. government can and should help all Americans in need. Federal money and laws help give the average American everything from safer streets to better schools to cleaner air. Also, few state and local governments are equipped to handle problems that cross state lines, such as protecting the environment. "Big government is not the solution to every problem," says Clinton. "But it is equally wrong to say that government is the source of all our problems."
The Biggest Battleground
The biggest battle in this debate has been over the federal budget. For many years, Republicans and Democrats alike have allowed the government to spend far more than it receives in taxes. As a result, the U.S. now has a debt of about $5 trillion — about $19,000 for every man, woman, and child.
The two parties are not trying to face up to the problem. They want to balance the budget (make income match spending). But Republicans want to balance the budget within seven years by making deep cuts in spending. Democrats believe these Republican spending cuts are too big and come too fast.
Another way to help balance the federal budget would be to raise taxes. But tax hikes are unpopular with most Americans.
What do you think? Below are three debates. They highlight larger debates going on in Congress over issues such as antipoverty programs, education, and environmental protection. With which side do you agree? You will be hearing much more about these issues in the upcoming presidential election campaign. When you do, pay attention: After all, the country's future — and yours — could be at stake.
Aiding the Needy
Should the federal government play a smaller role in helping Americans in need?
Six decades ago, the Great Depression wiped out the finances of millions of Americans. Poverty, homelessness, and hunger were so widespread that the federal government stepped in to help. It set up federally funded programs to help Americans find jobs and pay for food, housing, and health care. These programs to help the needy are often referred to as "welfare" or the federal "safety net." Over the years, the number and cost of these programs have skyrocketed.
Today, Congress and the President are struggling to reduce the federal government's budget deficit (shortfall). That struggle lends urgency to a hot topic of national debate: Should the federal government take a smaller role in helping the needy?
Both sides of the debate agree that today's federal safety-net programs are not as efficient as they could or should be. Beyond that, however, there is deep disagreement on the question of how to best help the needy, or what role the federal government should play in helping them.
Should we reduce the federal government's role in helping Americans in need? Before you decide, read both sides.
No one wants poor, elderly, or other needy Americans to suffer. But if they need help, we should use the most effective way of getting it to them. Federal programs are not as cost-effective as programs run by states and cities. That is because state and local programs are closer to the people they help.
The way it is now, federal agencies run most aid programs, including Medicaid, Medicare, and school-lunch assistance. Instead, Congress should give money to the state in block grants. That way, each state could decide how best to spend the money.
An added benefit: States could use this money to encourage welfare families to take better care of their children's health and education needs. For instance, Maryland hopes to cut down on childhood diseases by reducing monthly payments to parents who fail to get their youngsters immunized. A Wisconsin plan cuts aid to families whose teenagers miss too many days of school.
Cutting taxes is another way of shifting aid for the needy closer to home. If Americans get to keep more of their wages, they will be more likely to donate money to local charities. Many of these charities do a fine job of helping the homeless, teenaged mothers, and other people in need.
The federal government is responsible for the security and well-being of all its citizens. If there are problems with the way federal social-aid programs are being run, the solution is to fix those problems, not wipe out the programs.
If the federal government turns these programs over to the states, the needy could be hurt. What guarantee is there that the states will use the money to help those most in need? If we leave it up to each state, the kind of aid available could vary widely. The needy in one state might get adequate help, while people with the same needs in a neighboring state might suffer. Federal oversight is needed to make sure that all Americans in need get equal care.
Penalties may help motivate people to get off welfare. However, penalties work only when the needy also have access to counseling, job training, and child care. Such programs help people make the shift from being dependent to being self-reliant. In the long run, such programs could save money by reducing the need for aid. In the short run, however, they will cost more money, not less.
Lower taxes will not mean more money for charities. People who pay lower taxes tend to keep or spend their money, not donate it.
Does the U.S. spend too much time and money trying to protect nature?
On June 22, 1969, part of the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland, Ohio, burst into flames. It had become so clogged with chemicals that it turned into a fire hazard.
News of the fire touched a nerve in many Americans. They did not want to live in such a polluted country. Within five years, Congress passed some of the toughest environmental laws in the world. It created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and laws designed to clean up polluted air and water and protect wildlife.
Those laws have been successful. Air and water in the U.S. are cleaner and some endangered species are making a comeback. But the laws gave rise to a backlash against the environmental movement. Critics say that businesses and individuals are paying too high a price. Logging, mining, oil, and cattle industries say that laws protecting endangered species cost them too much money, so workers lose jobs.
The backlash against environmental laws can be seen in today's Congress. Many Republican lawmakers want to cut funding for the EPA and change environmental laws. Environmentalists say that such changes will reverse 25 years of progress in cleaning up the U.S. Read both arguments and decide: Does the U.S. government spend too much money on protecting nature?
Environmental laws are extreme; it is time to fix them. Everybody wants to save the environment. Even the big companies that environmentalists like to hold up as wicked polluters want clean air and water.
Environmental groups react to every situation in the same way: If pollution needs to be cleaned up, they want to create a new rule or law. The problem is that most of the laws completely ignore the needs of business. The American Petroleum Institute estimates that U.S. government regulations cost the oil industry more than 400,000 jobs between 1980 and 1990. If you think, "So what?" then you probably don't know one of those 400,000 people.
Saving endangered animals and their habitats (natural places to live) is very noble. But stubbornly keeping areas untouched by humans costs people jobs. It also costs the U.S. valuable, much-needed resources. An estimated 700,000 new jobs would be created if Congress opened Alaska's Arctic national Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration. As Chuck Cushman, a leader in the fight to change environmental laws, told Junior Scholastic, "People are a legitimate part of the environment."
Everybody these days wants to be seen as being "green." Polls show that 80 percent of Americans consider themselves to be environmentalists. So it is not surprising that Republicans say that really, really deep down, they do care about the environment. But they have a funny way of showing it. They have tried to cut funding for the EPA, so that it cannot do its job. They also have tried to open fragile, untouched wilderness areas in Alaska to oil and gas drilling. Many moderate Republicans refuse to go along with these plans.
The anti-environment crowd prides itself on how hard-headed it is when it comes to creating jobs. But short-sightedness about the environment is dumb economics. Take the fishermen on the Atlantic Coast for example. For decades, they overfished the area. Now there are too few fish to catch. Jobs — and whole towns — have disappeared.
Congress should be working to toughen environmental laws. About 40 percent of the nation's rivers and lakes remain unsafe for fishing or swimming. Two out of five Americans live in areas with unhealthy air. One out of four still lives within four miles of a toxic (poisonous) waste dump. As environmentalist Chris Williams told Junior Scholastic, "I don't want to torch the whole system and start from scratch."
Should public schools rely less on help from the U.S. Government?
Earlier this year, an electronics company in Ohio tried to hire high school graduates to fill 200 jobs. But it rejected thousands of applicants. Why? They had poor math and computer skills.
Traditionally, it has been the task of state and local governments to take care of public education. But many people think that this should change. They say that the problems of the Ohio company show that the U.S. government should be doing more to improve education.
President Clinton, a Democrat, strongly favors increasing the U.S. role in education. In 1994, Congress, which then was controlled by the Democrats, approved a law known as Goals 2000. It provided money for schools that followed U.S. education guidelines. The guidelines encouraged a variety of improvements, including better math and science teaching.
The situation changed when Republicans won control of Congress in the 1994 elections. Many Republicans opposed the increased U.S. government role in education. If Ohio has a problem with its schools, they say, then it is up to Ohio to solve it.
Should public schools rely less on federal aid? Read both arguments, then decide.
Giving the U.S. government a bigger role in education sounds like a great idea. After all, Washington is just helping out. It is just giving money — with a few strings attached — to help local school districts run their schools. That sounds harmless enough. But it is one more instance of the federal government sticking its nose where it does not belong. If education is funded by Washington, it will be controlled by Washington.
What is wrong with that? First, there is no proof that spending more money on schools makes them better. According to studies, the attitudes of students and parents have a much bigger impact on school quality than spending does.
Second, local school districts have to reform themselves. Local people have to care enough to make sure that reforms take place. Sending federal help to school districts that already waste their own resources is just throwing good money after bad.
Third, and most important, Washington is not in a position to decide what is best for all American school kids. What is good for students in Little Falls, Minnesota, might not be best for students in Los Angeles. Such decisions are — and should be — left to state and local governments.
There are few issues more important to America's future than education. Democracy works only when voters are educated and informed. Yet many people say that the U.S. government should just turn its back on education and leave it alone.
Their main argument is that schools should not depend on U.S. government money. Many studies do indeed show that money alone does not create good schools and that the attitudes of students, parents, and teachers matter most. But which school is more likely to create a positive attitude toward learning? A beat-up school with out-of-date textbooks and overworked teachers? Or a well-kept school with small classes and modern technology, such as computers?
Federal budget cuts will devastate poor school districts. Many of them cannot afford adequate schools, let alone good ones. Without federal money, their students will have no shot at decent schooling. As a result, they are likely to sink even further into poverty.
Do attitudes toward education need to change? Yes. Schools will improve only when students, parents, and teachers work hard together. But there is a more important attitude that needs to change: People must realize that improving education is a national concern.