This past Friday I hiked nine miles into Yellowstone National Park to see the spectacular Union Falls. It is a stunning waterfall, and the price of admission was simply the length of the hike. As I walked the well-groomed trail, I saw very few other people or even evidence of other people other than footprints in the dirt. But at times I did notice that someone had cleared or cut away trees that had fallen along the path. I wondered who did the work of walking the trails with a chainsaw, axe or shovel.
To my good fortune, right as I was having that thought, I saw a young man walking with a large backpack, an axe and a uniform. I learned that his job was to walk the trail and keep it clear of debris, fallen trees, and other obstacles. It looked like hard work, but I have to admit that it sounded nice to have a job that required you to walk through Yellowstone every day!
That got me to one more thought — how many people worked to make that hike and that National Park so beautiful and safe for me? A National Park like Yellowstone is run by the federal government, which employs over 22,000 people to maintain the National Park Service. They also have nearly 350,000 volunteers that work in the national park service every year.
This is the miracle of collective effort and combined funding. Most of us could not even afford to hire one trail-keeper for a year, let alone all of the people who protect the land, create and maintain the roads and provide emergency services when needed. But when all of our taxes are collected, we can together provide this kind of service for everyone. And when we combine the government employees with the remarkable volunteerism we find in our country, we can do exceptional things.
The tragic flooding in Texas this past week brings to the forefront the power of both aspects of our collective effort and funding. The National Guard (funded by the government) and emergency services (funded by the government and paid for by our taxes) saved thousands of people. Those particular organizations were overwhelmed, and in stepped the “Cajun Navy” or “Dunkirk on the Bayou” as they have been called. Private citizens with boats stepped in, rescuing people from their homes and flooded cars.
After the initial emergency and rescue efforts are finished, long-term issues will still loom for tens of thousands of people in Texas and Louisiana. These issues will test both our personal willingness to serve and our collective funding as the federal government to help people get their lives back together.
I often hear people complaining about the government while expecting help from the government when they are in need. Whether it is help from the police, disaster relief or even help paying for health care in times of difficulty, most people seem to expect the government to stay out of their lives until they want something. Our particular Madison County has a poverty rate of over 35 percent, which is nearly double the national average of 14.7 percent. Medicaid (health care for those under 65 years old) spending in Madison County yearly is about $14 million.
What this means is that we benefit, collectively, a great deal from the contributions and collective support of many of our fellow citizens. This doesn’t mean that we have to support a larger, more bloated government bureaucracy, but it does mean that we should appreciate that we benefit a great deal from the collective funding and efforts of the government, and we should remember that the “government” is made up of people, neighbors even, who work hard to make our lives better.
Maybe it is because I have lived in places without a strong government commitment to its citizens, but I have a real appreciation for the clean air and water standards enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency. I know few places in the world where you can be as confident that what you eat and drink will be safe (thanks to the Food & Drug Administration). The courts, the military and national guard, the highway system, healthcare coverage for millions of Americans — all these are provided by our collective effort and funding.
We should be appreciative of the benefits we gain when we pool our efforts and resources. We should expect our government to spend wisely and use our pooled resources thoughtfully. Only about 15 percent of the people affected by the flooding in Texas have insurance to cover their losses. Ironically, all but one of their Texan elected representatives voted against funding for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the residents in New York. The billions that will be needed in Texas will be provided by our national, collective effort. But we shouldn’t only be in favor of government help when we need it ourselves.
In response to his GOP colleagues’ rejections of Hurricane Sandy Relief, Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) said to them: “Florida, good luck with no more hurricanes. California, congratulations, did you get rid of the Andreas fault? The Mississippi’s in a drought. Do you think you’re not going to have a flood again? Who are you going to come to when you have these things?”
Matthew Whoolery holds a doctorate in psychology and is an instructor at Brigham Young University-Idaho. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.