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Commentary: Equal access doesn't mean equal outcomes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 30, 2010 - In the wake of the health-care debate, I've been struck by the blanket criticism to federal programs, much of which lacks historical context.

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., said, "The proponents of this legislation reject an opportunity society and instead assume you are stuck in your station in life and the role of government is to help you cope with it. Rather than promote equal opportunities for individuals to make the most of their lives, the cradle-to-grave welfare state seeks to equalize the results of people's lives."

To suggest that making something accessible also makes the outcomes homogenous is false. It is also false to suggest that federal programs cancel out individual variation (e.g., perseverance, ingenuity). The larger issue is the implication that a federally legislated program is inherently evil and replaces opportunity with accepted mediocrity ("stuck in your station in life"). My hunch is that this well-crafted insinuation is a light version of the more blatant scare tactics I will discuss below. But before jumping ahead, I want to be clear that the very government that Ryan suggests is rejecting opportunity literally handed opportunity to our ancestors.

Take the Homestead Act of 1862, for example. The act basically gave land to citizens (or would-be citizens). We will leave the fact that the land belonged to others and that only whites were eligible for citizenship at that time for another day. Let's focus on the fact that with more than 1.6 million applications, this act gave 270 million acres, or 10 percent of U.S. land to individuals. I would categorize that as a big government "handout."

In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that it was a significant entitlement program, a government program providing benefits to members of a specified group. (See the dictionary for definition of entitlement.) The development and wealth generated from that act has helped make America what it is today.

So what Ryan fails to acknowledge is that big government has historically created opportunity. I would further argue that it did not create equal opportunities for all Americans who were eligible. The Americans who benefited from this act were far from stuck in their station in life. They were literally catapulted via land ownership.

Similar analogies can be made for the opportunities provided through the creation of the FHA in 1934 and the GI Bill of the 1940s. These big government, entitlement programs -- although disproportionately available to white Americans -- provided massive opportunities for wealth development. Did they create equal outcomes for all white Americans? No.

Ryan's argument is further implicated, because of the racially charged undertones, which have followed President Barack Obama and the health-care legislation. The assumption goes something like this: Because every president before Obama has acted solely in the self-interest of his racial group, then Obama must be scheming to only serve the needs of black America.

That argument is flawed in so many ways it is almost not worth addressing, except for the fact that it is also so prominent it must be addressed.

Ryan's comments hint at the government's attempt to help those who have a lower lot in life, which disproportionately includes people of color, by minimizing the opportunities of others. These remarks subtly play on the fear that some white people have of being marginalized as a form of payback for past wrongs or being neglected through some affirmative-action-gone-wrong. Yet, a number of the more outspoken conservative talking heads have been more blatant in flaring the insecurities of white Americans.

Glenn Beck has suggested that "Barack Obama is setting up universal health care, universal college, green jobs as stealth reparations. That way the victim status is maintained. And he also brings back back-door reparations."  If you read the entire article, you will see that Beck spends an inordinate amount of time making this case that he is only responsible for his own wrongs and not the wrongs of others. He does this preemptively as if to suggest that Obama is out to blame him for the sins of his forefathers. Rush Limbaugh has also equated health care with reparations and a civil rights act.

There are numerous reasons to be against the health care law as it currently stands. Much of the wealth that exists today was built on big government entitlement programs, and we are far from being a country of drones. Therefore, let's not be ahistorical and suggest that the mere extension of equal access through federal legislation is the same as equal outcomes.

Kira Hudson Banks, Ph.D., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon. 

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