09/25/2012 11:11 am ET Updated Nov 25, 2012

Government: The Essential Safety Net

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All the discussion about the right size of government has gotten me thinking about the importance of government as a safety net. We need a last resort for those workers who have done the right thing all their lives and find themselves, because of a changing economy, out of a job, unable to pay their bills and take care of their families.

Who do we think is going to provide the skills training that is needed for these workers to make successful transitions to new careers? And who will help with financial assistance while the training takes place? Yes, corporations should do some of the training that is unique to their programs and processes. But a corporation making sophisticated computer chips is never going to employ someone who is trained to work on an automobile assembly line unless that person has had some education in computer hardware. It falls to the government to provide the basic training that is needed and keep families financially afloat in the interim.

At a more basic level, people who retire after working for 40 years and have not saved enough on which to live (i.e. the vast majority of Americans), rely on Social Security and Medicare to eke out a modest existence. And those who do not get employer-sponsored health insurance must make do with Medicaid, imperfect as it is.

In the Great Depression of the 1930's, there was no such social safety net, and millions of Americans were ruined, starved, forced to become itinerants. One may quarrel with the size and shape of the programs the Roosevelt administration created, but to argue that we do not need them at all seems out of touch at best and evil at worst. Just because one doesn't need Medicaid today doesn't mean he or she won't need it tomorrow. What if their savings were invested with the next Bernie Madoff?

I have worked in the nonprofit sector for 20 years, and I have great admiration for the services that nonprofits provide to those they serve here and abroad. But I would tell you that nonprofits by themselves cannot and should not produce all the services Americans need to live healthy, productive lives. We tried that model before the Great Depression, and we ended up with poorhouses and orphanages.

Let's hear a little more about the appropriate role for government rather than debate whether we should have it at all. That is a conversation I would relish.