Government as Parent – or as Nanny?

For the first 150 years after the Declaration of Independence, the American government was a fairly laissez-faire as far as regulating the lives of the people. Until the massive upheavals in society that accompanied the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, government basically stayed out of the affairs of the individual; it was not until around the dawn of the twentieth century that the government saw fit to regulate child labor and working conditions in heavy industry. However, with droves of poor people heading west from Oklahoma and other parts of the Midwest to California, having been driven off their farms by foreclosure, rattling in unstable jalopies that often did not even have the mechanical strength to make the journey, and with hoboes riding the rails, crisscrossing the nation, it was apparent that the government needed to intervene in order to maintain social order. If the government had simply sat by while unemployment continued to climb and poverty continued to swelter, then there would have been revolution – and redistribution. Instead of letting the people manage this process themselves, the American leadership looked to the example of history and decided that the government should establish a safety net for the poor – to ensure the health of the government just as surely as it was done to ensure the health of the individuals.

When Aristotle said that “humans are fundamentally political and social beings,” he meant that people make their political decisions on the basis of what benefits them personally – and then socially. This is why Bill Clinton was able to drive George H.W. Bush out of office in 1992,                                                                                                                                           

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because Clinton understood that the basic problem of the nation fell with the economy (Clinton). In the years since the Great Depression, the American government has undertaken a series of legislative steps designed to regulate, in some instances, and aid, in other instances, the lives of individuals. In some instances, those steps have been useful and proper; in others, they have either been excessively intrusive to make much sense.

One particularly reminiscent example of this is the American war on obesity. It seems that every week or so, a new study comes out that declares America to be the most overweight country on the planet, with certain regions of the country “weighing in” more heavily than others. Each study discusses about the costs that this obesity will have, not just on the health of individuals who will start contracting Type 2 diabetes, but on the health costs of the entire nation, as the care for the obese, even though they will likely die sooner than they would have if they had stayed slender, will drive up expenses for treatment that all must bear, whether we move forward into fully nationalized, public health insurance, or remain in this current nexus of exchanges and PPO's (LaPook). If everyone has health insurance, then everyone bears the costs of the risk pool. The more Type 2 diabetics there are in the pool, the more the costs will be for everyone – even those who never need medical care of any kind.

Smith writes about the smug attitude of the various levels of government and the growing problem of obesity. First Lady Michelle Obama has taken as her cause the spirit of a fat nation, particularly among its young. She put together an effort that used the resources of a dozen federal agencies to cobble a 124-page report that was chock-full of recommendations. One of the statements from this report read, “'The Federal government...should provide clear, actionable guidance to states, providers and families on how to increase physical activity, improve nutrition, and reduce screen time'”(Smith  500). In New York City, the state and municipal governments are also jumping into the fight; Mayor Bloomberg ordered food manufacturers to cut down on the sodium in their food by threatening some sort of concrete regulations; in response, Heinz came up with a ketchup formula that had 15 percent less sodium. The governor of New York had proposed a tax on the order of 30 percent on sodas and sugary powdered beverages (Smith 500).

The problem, according to Smith, is that the report is either nagging too much or asking too little. The phrase “should be encouraged,” according to Smith, appears over 60 times; one of these says “'the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) guidelines should be made more available'” (Smith 501). Of course, it does not suggest any way to do that; one of the wonders of the way that government reports are written is that they use the passive voice, which allows one to write a sentence that describes a problem without identifying the party responsible for the problem. Other suggestions include a federal program that encourages breast feeding using peer counseling and home visits, as well as a text-messaging program that will send suggestions to new mothers three times a week until the baby reaches a year old. This messaging program could be run fairly easily by a person or two, using software that is already available, but this program involves universities, corporations, government agencies, professional associations, and even tribal agencies. The rest of the recommendations revolve around making threats and new punitive taxes (Smith 501).

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There is little to no evidence that giving people more information changes their behavior, at least in matters of public health. Even in the case of cigarette smoking, having a warning label on the pack has not stopped the nationwide addiction. The situation is similar with obesity. The study also points out that, because people do not consume as much fat as they get higher on the wealth ladder, “'perhaps a more effective strategy for reducing the consumption of fat from meat would be to pursue policies that increased income'”(Smith 502). However, none of the recommendations in the study are designed to bring that about. Raising the price of such items as beef, for example, might lead to greater obesity, because the healthiest combinations of fat and lean beef also cost the most; an increase in prices could motivate the poor to buy fattier cuts – thus, undoing the good of the program. Clearly, something else is needed – but it's not in the report.

Why do people pull into drive-through lanes and load up on fat and cholesterol? The bottom line is that it is cheaper and more convenient to do it. Also, fat and salt taste good to people – much better than salads and even yogurt parfaits. It takes education for people to learn that the fat and salt will ultimately lead to an early grave – but it also takes more than education. It takes the leisure time to cook using healthier ingredients, and it takes parental exposure to other choices in the food spectrum, so that children find better ways to fill up. However, the federal government cannot push people to make better choices when it comes to eating. When it comes to the social questions associated with setting up a national health care system, no one wants to be obese. Everyone wants to look attractive and feel healthy. If the government wants to help people in that direction, then it is important for people to feel like they have the time and the leisure to expose themselves to better choices – not use surtaxes to harass the poor.

Any discussion of the federal government and food must, eventually, come around to the question of food stamps. Jennifer explores the phenomenon of people in their twenties or thirties who are unemployed, live near the poverty line, but instead of paying for the prototypical welfare food items like American cheese (processed and sliced), white bread, bologna, the more tired-looking produce, and whole milk, many people are heading into the higher-end grocery stores, such as Whole Foods or Trader Joe's, using government funds to purchase things like raw honey, freshly squeezed juices, soy alternatives to meat, and even gourmet ice cream (497). The government sets the benefit level based on the applicant's existing income; one example is “Mak,” who has a degree from the University of Chicago but never found the prospects in the publishing industry that he wanted. He found himself in Baltimore with a part-time blogging gig and little money; most of his social circle was also receiving assistance in the form of food stamps, so he decided to apply too; as a result, he received $200 each month from the government. His Marie Antoinette moment, though, comes when he says, “'I'm sort of a foodie, and I'm not going to do the “living off ramen” thing'”(Bleyer 497). If the leadership of the Tea Party would take the time to read news that does not already appear on Fox News, one could see a picture of this young man lining the walls of their meetings, and on banners flying from the rafters of the Republican Party's national convention.  It was the stimulus that covered the transition from President George W. Bush's administration to that of President Obama's that loosened the restrictions on able-bodied adults who do not have any dependents when it comes to food stamps; there are many young, single people who became eligible that would never have received that assistance before. Because unemployment among those who had a bachelor's degree shot up by 179 percent between 2006 and 2009, and by 100 percent among those who are age 20 to 34 between 2007 and 2009 (Bleyer 498), this is a part of the population that may continue to need public assistance for some time.

 However, these people are young professionals and members of the creative professions, by and large. They were not raised poor; the government reports that, of the 38 million Americans who have been approved for food stamps, the vast majority are the working poor and single parents who also receive welfare payments (Bleyer 498). These are the people buying the block cheese, the giant cans of chicken and dumplings, and the huge package of bologna, having to stretch their dollars to feed their entire families. However, this group of the food stamp block was not raised on this food and does not want to eat it. However, as was the case with the obese, there is no one among this group that is glad to be receiving federal assistance with buying food. There is a sense of shame and embarrassment associated with having the benefit, and this is a trait that has been around since the notion of government relief. In the movie Cinderella Man, for example, boxer James J. Braddock had to go on assistance to feed his family and even pay his utility bills while he was recovering from injuries, unable even to work on the docks, let alone take the ring against opponents. When his fortunes returned, he famously returned to the office where he had received his relief money with the cash in hand, paying the government back in full (it is hard to imagine any of the professionals in this article having that sort of attitude about public assistance; however, it is good to see that there is no comfort associated with receiving welfare). While temporary assistance is simply part of being human – there are times when everyone needs help of some kind, even if that help is not financial – living on the generosity of others causes tension over time, as there is the expectation that those receiving assistance should, over time, be able to use the leisure that the assistance provides to get themselves back on their feet, autonomous once again. Indeed, it can be said that using food stamp funds to buy healthy food could be a lesson to those who think that you can't eat a nutritious diet that is low in fat on the funds that federal assistance provides. Again, though, very few of the professionals referenced in this article had to feed a bunch of kids. That matter, though, is a whole different discussion than food stamps.

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The decisions that we make for ourselves are individual – then social, and then political, as we work our way out from our own individual self-interest. The government will continue to interact with those decisions as long as we, as a society, decide that we want – or need – the government to retain its role in raising us, and helping us interact with one another.   In conclusion, Aristotle’s claim that “human are fundamentally political and social beings” is truly evident in today’s society.

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