The Heritage Index of Culture and Opportunity, now in its third year, tracks the conditions that challenge or buoy Americans in their day-to-day lives. It looks at factors such as unemployment, marriage, quality and freedom of education, economic freedom, and many others to show a broad picture of American society and the challenges to thriving in it.
The Index’s findings are at turns an indictment and an inspiration. We see much work to be done to alleviate the plight of intergenerational poverty and broken families — circumstances too often exacerbated rather than effectively addressed by federal policy — but we also see room for hope, whether in educational successes finally bringing quality options to more and more students or in a decrease in the number of abortions.
Surveying the indicators, it is clear that the era of big government over the past half-century has not been a good one for the strength of communities and the flourishing of individuals. This should concern all Americans, whatever their political affiliation, who want to help the poorest among us and preserve the prosperity of our hard-working fellow citizens who have been blessed to find it.
It also should point us toward a renewed appreciation for subsidiarity: the principle that political challenges are best met at the smallest level of government capable of handling them. Subsidiarity is often discussed as a condition for a free economy or as insurance against unjust coercion by those in power. It is certainly these. But subsidiarity is more than the mere opposite of big and bloated government.
Subsidiarity prompts the problem-solving capabilities of local understanding — a familiarity that goes beyond checkmarks on government paperwork. It hinges on our responsibility toward our neighbors — a responsibility that cannot be shifted to Washington or the rest of the nation. Social programs administered by distant bureaucrats can go through charitable motions with little awareness of whether their supposed beneficiaries are lost in the turning of the gears.
We will achieve true charity in our responsibility for our neighbors only when our efforts are tethered to communities by the bonds of care. These bonds are forged by an intimacy with local life — faults and foibles included — and a physical investment in the community that one wishes to assist. It cannot come from the top down, as history has shown.
If I may turn the old progressive saw on its head: Think locally, and act locally too. Even as we debate national policies, it is vital that we never forget that each of us is from somewhere and that we allow that place to be part of us.
Before we presume to know what is best for others, we must learn what is best for our own families and neighbors in our little part of the world, allowing our neighbors to do the same. In this endeavor, let us take cheer from the words of the great English novelist George Eliot:
A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of earth, for the labours men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakeable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge…
I hope this edition of the Heritage Index of Culture and Opportunity widens knowledge about our culture and helps to inspire policies that preserve a tender kinship for the people, places, and good works that make America as abundant in charity as in riches.
— Jim DeMint is President of The Heritage Foundation.
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