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Caring for the caretakers: Lessons from the 9/11 first responders bill

Last week I introduced this column with this central question: “What is our government for?”

It’s the divisive issue of American politics, with some 8212; such as the Tea Party candidates who swept into office in the last election 8212; believing that the government should play a miniscule role, some believing it should do as much as possible (we call these people socialists), and most Americans falling somewhere in the middle.

Several bills enacted at the end of the last Congress received broad public support, such as the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and a new food safety law. National polls showed that each bill was supported with an 80 percent majority, suggesting that many constituents want the government to protect civil rights and provide public safety. Additionally, the enormous popularity of the recently passed Zadroga bill, which covers health costs for 9/11 first responders, displays the wide-held belief that the American government should look out for American heroes.

The package providing aid to 9/11 responders 8212; who fell ill while clearing the wreckage of the World Trade Center 8212; had long been stalled in Congress. This was due to budgetary disputes and Republican objection to any form of increased government spending, even when it came to national heroes. But once word reached the public that the idea was even being debated in Washington 8212; thanks to a renewed media push led by Jon Stewart 8212; the bill was rushed through with only 60 “no” votes in the House.

Most of us, then, think providing services to those who made sacrifices in a time of national tragedy is exactly what the government is for. This includes those Republicans who said they weren’t necessarily against health care for first responders, but only this particular bill at this particular time. The 9/11 bill was as close to a no-brainer as Congress gets.

Extending the agreeable notion of assistance for public servants beyond the tragedy of 9/11 gets more complicated. How about health care for all police officers and fire fighters? Again, most would agree that’s a good use of tax dollars. But what if you stretch the definition of a civil service hero?

Teachers, I would say, fit this definition (bias disclosure 8212; my mom teaches fourth grade in a public school). Health care for teachers seems like a reasonable reward for those who sacrifice so much of their time in a low-paying, extraordinarily important job. But states from New York to Washington, faced with dramatic budget shortfalls, have slashed public sector health benefits for thousands, including teachers.

It’s the reality of a recession, and the public is more likely to support cuts to civil servants’ benefits than to their own services. But if we can all agree that the heroes of 9/11 deserve tax-funded aid packages (and they absolutely do), can’t more of us agree that those fighting the everyday emergencies 8212; cleaning our streets, providing us water, educating our kids 8212; deserve their fair share too? A primary role of the government is taking care of those who take care of us, from the 9/11 responders to the woman teaching your daughter the difference between evens and odds.

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