I recently listened to a really compelling installment of NPR's wonderful show, This American Life (March 2, 2012). In that podcast, they focused on some changes in Trenton and Newark, NJ as well as in the Midwest as a result of decreased government spending. That got me thinking.
Shortly after that, my mom stayed at our home and discussed with my adolescent kids the sacrifices she and my dad made when it was time for me to go to college and earlier in my life. I greatly appreciate the huge stretching my family did to provide those opportunities. That's when it crystallized and I decided to write this down.
It is very clear to me that whatever I have today in terms of education and professional achievements, I wouldn't have accessed without the help of a seemingly innumerable set of government programs, luck and the kindness of people who, at the time, were strangers. I'm not saying that what I've achieved is so great or that financial stability is success. That said, because I grew up in a multigenerational row home which my parents shared with my aunt and grandmother (the latter two shared a bedroom), owning my own home complete with white picket fence and rooms for my 2 healthy kids is something I had wanted for a very long time. I am delighted and appreciative that my wife and I were able to get there, but we certainly didn't get there alone. Here's just a little background.
My parents both went to college for free at Brooklyn College and my father, who grew up dirt poor (my mom grew up poor, but he was poorer), received medical help periodically throughout his life from the Veterans Administration and their various services. I'm not saying it was the best care, but it was there for him and he couldn't afford more, especially after his military service and before he completed college. Neither of them viewed the free college tuition as a handout, both worked during the day and went to school at night, which is where they met. My father-in-law, who also grew up poor, went to NYU on the GI Bill after fighting in WWII. Incidentally, my wife and I met when we were 18, right after she spent a year studying in Germany on a scholarship funded by the United States State Department and the German Bundestag (a post-war program designed to increase understanding between our nations).
All 4 of my grandparents were born overseas so I'm pretty appreciative that our immigration policy at the time let them all in...especially because they arrived jobless. Certainly, none of them did particularly well financially so they were probably a drain on the government in a number of ways, especially my mom's family (she is one of 6 kids). My father grew up with English as his second language. He learned English for free, in school, thanks to compulsory (and free) elementary education.
I was fortunate enough to get into a magnet program at a public high school in Brooklyn. It was several miles from home but because we didn't have much money, I received a subsidy to take a municipal bus (or two) to and from school in High School. I doubt that I'd have gone to the college I attended had I not had my perspective materially altered by attending that magnet program (so thank you Midwood High School).
We couldn't afford college but a combination of government loans, scholarships and, of course, tuition and other payments from my parents, covered the bills. A work study program enabled me to work for all 4 years of college, during school. Sometimes I worked 35 hours a week and my jobs did include cleaning toilets in an office building in Philadelphia (I didn't last long at that one, but I received more compensation per hour for that than for working on campus).
When it was time for law school, I took out more government subsidized loans and the student loans I had previously obtained were deferred until I finished school. The mountain of debt I had amassed did very much inform my decision to go straight to law school because the thought of repaying what I had borrowed on whatever job I expected to get with a degree in Sociology & Anthropology was a bit daunting. So when my college friends asked if I wanted to join them on an exotic trip after graduation, I declined and worked instead. Not complaining and not bragging, just noting that these things informed my decisions but they also showed me a world I wanted to enter where kids could take those kinds of trips.
My first summer of law school at U of Penn, I received a grant to work for a Public Interest Law Group where I had been working during the school year. This was consistent with my work the prior summer when I had been a camp counselor at an overnight camp for persons with retardation and those who had been labeled mentally ill. At the camp, we received and dined on government subsidized food and while I never thought to ask where our funding had come from, I'm confident that there were government funds involved...this was not a luxurious camp. For my time at the public interest job, our work helping people with developmental disabilities was funded by a series of government grants and while I remember my bosses applying for grants, I certainly don't remember them having to cozy up to private donors; ever.
I have nothing against soliciting funds from private donors (though I like the idea of a public interest law project not having to worry about which corporate interests it angers). Quite the opposite. In fact that's soliciting private donors has been the cornerstone of the HAPI Foundation -- http://www.hapifoundation.org -- , the charity my wife and I founded with some friends (and which I have chaired for more than a decade). Through the HAPI Foundation, we raised and gave grants of several million bucks to dozens of worthy organizations. Fortunately, the government enabled our friends to get a deduction for those donations and many of the wonderful organizations we've supported were government-run or government-funded groups (though certainly not all of them were). One of those that is government funded, YCS, has become very special to our family because not only has the HAPI Foundation consistently funded YCS, but the interactions my kids have had with the people at YCS and the children served by YCS has greatly influenced my kids.
The point is that the public sector and the private sector must BOTH be involved in helping. For instance, my older sister was born with severe disabilities (which is part of why helping special populations has always been important to me) and her life was saved by experimental surgery in the Philadelphia suburbs just over 100 miles from where we lived in Brooklyn. My parents needed to be at her bedside when she was undergoing treatment (surgery, various procedures and post-surgical check ups) there and the good people who were geographically proximate to the hospital had volunteered to let families of kids like my sister stay at their homes when the families couldn't afford hotels. We couldn't afford hotels and we stayed with volunteers. In fact, we stayed so frequently, that it wasn't until I was older that I learned that Aunt Helen and Uncle Al Kauffman weren't related to us but were merely volunteers who took a young family with a very sick kid into their homes, repeatedly. I have never forgotten that kindness nor have I forgotten that they always made us feel like welcome guests. My eyes well up right now thinking about it. I loved the muti-colored digital clock they had in the room I slept. I still have vivid memories of being there as a pre-kindergartener. Some of the grants I have pushed for and made through the HAPI Foundation are, in fact, directly as a result of that kindness and my desire to pay it back. Being wiped out by a flood themselves didn't stop Helen and Al from helping us as soon as their house was reassembled. Thank goodness for government emergency help for flood victims and others. Again, I'm not saying FEMA and related services are perfect, but I'd hate to eliminate those services.
We also have a family member named Jeannie who further embodies that spirit in the private sector. When Jeannie was a teenager she responded to an ad my parents placed looking for volunteers to help with my sister's physical therapy. Jeannie's family also didn't have a ton of money but she wanted some experience because she planned to go to medical school. She worked tirelessly with my family for years, while in school and even while getting a medical degree from Columbia University. Now, more than 45 years later, she's a professor at Georgetown Medical School and is an amazing person who works tirelessly for a number of really important causes, including her professional focus on cancers affecting older women. We're still close and I've never really been able to explain to people how she's part of our family, but she is very much a part of our family and always will be. In fact, when I started teaching at Columbia University's Business School I was particularly pleased because it had been her alma mater. I can't even express how much I look up to Jeannie.
My point is simply that we need both -- government programs and people like Helen, Al and, of course, Jeannie, who just step up and do the right thing over and over again. I sure wish some of our politicians would take a look at Jeannie's life and the impact she's had on our family. She's just down the block over at Georgetown...and she frequently seeks government grants for her research and work. Thank goodness the government funding is there for her and for all of us. Incidentally, I didn't tell her I was writing this and she had no idea I'd be talking about her.
So thanks for not cutting all the funding and shrinking away all the government just yet.
Pass it on.
PS This week we adopted a kitten from a shelter. He was the runt of the litter and kind of stupid looking, in an adorable way. His care and the rescue of other similarly situated kittens are thanks to the county (and the donations that families like ours have made when we adopt those kitties). His care is, of course, given by human beings but we sure did notice that the woman who had been in charge of him was wearing a shirt that said Morris County Animal Control when we picked up this adorable little guy.