Transportation in the US: History and Current Programs

One of the most underrated forms of government sponsored programs in the United States is public transportation. The US government, at the local, state, and federal levels, has jurisdiction over some part of all major types of transportation in the country. This includes road travel, air travel, train travel, and travel by boat with the respect to the movement of both passengers and cargo.  From regulation through laws to actual funding and maintaining of infrastructure projects its clear that we wouldn’t be able to travel anywhere nor have access to the many goods that our economy allows us to chose from without the government’s participation in our transportation systems.

The initial development of transportation systems in the United States were not centered on government funding or management. Road systems, funded by turnpikes, were widely privately owned along with steam ship companies, and eventually rail systems. Up until the mid 1800s, travel by water was definitely the most efficient way of travel in the US with every major city in the country being located on natural harbors or navigable waterways. The rapidly growing rail systems helped tie each side of the country together in the 1860s and allowed the quick industrialization of the country. The first major involvement that the US government had in transportation was the implementation of the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 which simply helped support states in improvement of roadways.

The most important legislation passed by the government in terms of transportation was the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 which proposed the construction of 41,000 miles of interstate within ten years. With the use of automobiles already on the steep rise, this was the nail in the coffin for railroad travel, both passenger and cargo, in the US. An increase in air travel efficiency also opened up that market to the middle class.

Today, the overwhelming majority of roadways in the United States are owned and maintained by state and local governments. This includes the interstate system where states are given federal funds to maintain these highways with their own agendas and resources. As far as train services go, the Nation Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) was created in 1971 by the federal government to maintain intercity passenger services. The cargo aspect of train service is still completely contained in the private sector with Amtrak paying these companies to use their tracks. Metro systems within dense metropolitan area are generally composed of bus, subway, and light rail systems all managed and funded by state and local governments.  Water transportation and passenger air travel also remain exclusively in the private sector with state and local governments maintaining airports and harbors.

Every day, 300 million Americans use government funded means of transportation, from roads, to buses, trains, and plains. Specifically, transit ridership is up more than twenty percent in the last decade, resulting in more and more funding by the federal government to allow for residents of the US to not be restricted by distance or financial standing to move about the country and their local communities. It’s clear that our public transportation systems play a vital role in our way of living and are a great example of how the federal government, the states, local governments, and private companies can work together to support the people of this country.

The History of Urban Public Transportation in the United States

Welfare: How it Functions in the US and Its Impact

Welfare serves as a broad term for federal and state programs that support residents through cash assistance, healthcare and medical provisions, food assistance, housing subsidies, energy and utilities subsidies, education and childcare assistance, and subsidies and assistance for other basic services. Its obvious that almost all residents of the United States rely on welfare services, a main reason why any major reforms to these programs are so controversial. How our government supports its citizens has always been a hot topic because the legislation that deals with welfare is so tightly connected with a lot of opinion in terms of morals as well as a huge ton of money mostly funded by taxpayers. Because its importance and easy misunderstanding, I wanted to summarize how welfare works here in the US and how it specifically impacts our society.

Welfare in the United States is just about as old as the country itself with individual colonies and eventually states having legislature to support those lacking the means to completely support themselves. They were modeled after English poor laws which provided care to those who could physically not work and work for those who needed it to make money. Specifically, aid to veterans and pensions to widows and handicapped veterans have been offered for every US war. Workers compensation was widely in effect since 1929 and retirement benefits for government workers can be traced back to the 1800’s, but all of these programs varied greatly from state to state.

The Great Depression is where the Federal government really started to have a heavy influence on social programs because of the states’ inability to fund them. The Social Security Act in 1935 was a major part in this change along with acts put into law by Lyndon B Johnson in the 1960s. Much needed change came from Bill Clinton in 1996 which ultimately took away incentive for states to have more families using direct government aid by basing federal funding off of total population and not the amount of people currently on government aid. Welfare became way to receive shot-term cash and to put people into job position for self support.

The Affordable Care Act passed in 2013 worked to make health care more universal. Supporters of the act boast that  6.4 million previously uninsured Americans now are insured and that 12.3 million more Americans are now enrolled in Medicaid. Critics of the acts point out that middle class premiums and overall costs of insurance have heavily increased causing an even larger amount of Americans unable to use their insurance while having to overpay for it.

Republicans have vowed, especially with their control of both the House, Senate, and Presidency, to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Just this past Friday, Republicans were supposed to vote on the GOP’s proposed healthcare act, the American Health Care Act. However, because of the lack of unified support among House Republicans, the President had the bill pulled from the floor mostly due to the fact that it’s too similar to what it is trying to replace.

Although the future of our current healthcare system is fairly uncertain, we have been able to conclude on the affects of welfare on our overall society. Political scientists like Ben Radcliff say that more generous social programs creates a high quality of life for all people in society. He claims that not only do these social programs directly better the conditions of living for people receiving benefits, but they also reduce the social pathologies (such as crime and anomie) that are the result of poverty and insecurity.  Although it seems our country needs some help in developing a new system, we can thank the government in the respect of welfare benefiting us all. (I know its Wikipedia but it has an great collection of info on this topic.)

Back to the Drawing Board(er) Reflection

My group, Back to the Drawing Bord(er), carried out our deliberation this past Wednesday in room 304 of the State College Municipal Building. We came together to discuss this recently controversial issue: how should the United States approach immigration policy? Our goal was to talk with members of the Penn State and State College area about the values that we hold as Americans and how we should apply these values to immigration in the United States. It was clear to our group that there are many issues that have sprung up within our country regarding this issue as well as many positives that result from the mixing of people from around the world. After all, that is how we became a nation. In order to get the most our of what happened during our deliberation, it’s now time to reflect on what went right, what went wrong, and the stances that we took on the subject as a group during the deliberation.

The deliberation was certainly a success, so it’s true that we can take many positives away from what occurred. I felt like the best part of our deliberation was how well structured the entire gathering was. After starting just after 3:30 pm, our group stood at the front of the room as Kate and Elliot gave an introduction, and each approach followed smoothly after with questions for the audience after each approach and an overall discussion at the end. The night previous, I attended a deliberation that was not well moderated or structured which took away from the affect that the event had on the audience. Also, we stayed on the topic of applying our values as Americans as to how to approach immigration rather than trying to find an answer to the problem, something pretty much all of us have an opinion on, but not a real solution.

There were also some aspects of our deliberation that could have gone just a bit better. The size and diversity of our audience definitely seemed to hurt us. In a deliberation, you want a group of people that have ideas from both sides of the spectrum in order for the audience as a whole to experience a well-rounded conversation. This definitely helps to “open minds”, which was our goal. Our audience seemed to be mostly on the same page, which was moderately liberal. This doesn’t mean that a good deliberation didn’t occur, it could have just been a little more exciting.

By the end of the deliberation, the audience had come to a similar conclusion, and this was aided by the process of thinking about each approach: restricted boarders, open boarders, and moderate boarders. When we were discussing restricted boarders, the audience was clearly against the idea of keeping our safe country to ourselves just for the sake of security. Whether an immigrant was to come from Mexico fleeing a desperate economy or fleeing Syria because of war, the group thought that our values direct us to let people in. However, when we came to open boarders, the consensus was that in no way should we actually have lightly regulated system because of the flow of drugs and other dangerous things across the boarder. Moderate boarders was where everything came together and we were able to find a middle ground while being opened to different idea during the discussion.

Overall, our deliberation was a success, and I am proud to have been apart of the undertaking of such a virtuous event for the good of public knowledge.

Public Housing: Function and Effects

One of the most personal things that the government provides for people of the United States is housing. Public housing was first implemented in the US in 1936 as a result of the Public Works Administration, a sector of FDR’s New Deal. The effort was made to rid cities about the country of slums that had grown as a result of the depression and to further improve the way of life for the nation as a whole. Every decade since, major Congressional Acts have been put into place in order to improve both private and public housing around the country. Now in the second decade of the 21st century, its again time to consider our public housing and its service to our country.

The positive aspects of public housing are pretty clear, especially in an ideal world. The purpose of government owned housing has always been to ease the burden of those struggling financially in terms of having a safe, accommodating place to live. Whether a person is coming up from being homeless or has simply dropped down in economic stability, similar to other government aids, public housing is essentially supposed to be a stepping stone. If you consider our country without the ability to fluidly rise through the economic spectrum given the input of hard work and determination, then we wouldn’t seem very American. Public housing has been able to do such a thing for many many people.

At the same time we must consider the cons of public housing that hinder its own ideal function. The first issue of public housing is that it concentrates poverty. Considering that the average income for someone who lives in government housing is just a couple thousand dollars higher than the federal poverty line ($11,880), it’s clear that poverty is concentrated in these areas. The effect on surrounding communities is clearly negative for property value drops the closer you get to government housing. Violence and drug abuse are also a major issues when it comes to these areas as well, which can carry over to the lack of proper management of housing units. A continuation of crime in public housing communities is a direct result of problematic residents being able to stay in their homes. Safety as it pertains to the physical health of tenants also remains a problem concerning the development and  management of public housing.

With the intent of government housing being just and necessary in many cases along with the many issues these communities face daily, it is clear that reform must continue at all levels of government. I don’t know much about exactly what must be implemented in terms of legislation, however finding a way for public housing to be properly managed has got to be at the top of the list. Public perception of public housing also has to change in order for any progress to be made. Public housing has been subject to many stereotypes, and while these stereotypes are true in many cases, we must understand what public housing can be: a way for our government to provide the necessities of life to its people, while also expanding opportunity to those who long for success.

Libraries Today and Their Continued Importance

Up until the invention and further development of the internet, libraries had been the center of all complex knowledge collected by the human race throughout our time on earth. Needless to say, the library has been a place of reference and refuge for the countless diverse communities that have surround them for centuries. However, many would say that role of the library has changed dramatically in recent decades and that we might not even need their services in the future.

Aside from institutions of higher education such as Penn State, you may ask, “Who even needs the library anymore?” When considering the large amount of public funded libraries around the country one could easily ask, “Why are we still paying for this? Why is our government not moving on to support more useful facilities for its people?” In an age of such electronic dependence and convenience, these seem like valid questions.

Believe it or not, the concept of the public library, meaning a sanctuary used to house books and other mediums of information maintained by government funds and accessible by the public, has been around since the fourth century BC in Egypt. Throughout the growth of the Roman Empire, the rise of great civilizations of Western Europe, and the expansion of those civilizations to North America, the public library has remained a feature of all intellectual societies. With the role of providing knowledge and a place of gathering to these societies, you can see how integral the library became throughout the course of time.

A view of the ruins of the Library of Alexandria, one of the largest, most significant library of the ancient world (est.3rd Century BC).

As mentioned earlier, the traditional public library system continues to become more and more archaic as we progress further and further in technology and demand more and more convenience in our lives. With the widespread development of internet use, the need for libraries to freely lend books is specifically decreasing. However, the function of libraries in recent times has evolved, and has largely retained its importance in the lives of community members seeking knowledge, refuge, and other informational and technological services. Today, countless libraries across the United States are responsible for providing access to the internet and other necessary technological equipment like copiers, printers, and fax machines, providing instructional services like after school care and academic tutoring, and simply offering a place to work, meet with friends, and maybe even pick up a nice novel.

Perhaps the strongest attribute of the library that has remained true through today has been unrestricted, free access to an abundance of information and a study place for the common man. What an amazing concept! Especially with use of libraries today being largely directed toward technology services and meeting/working spaces, it is important to note the role of the government in providing the facility to the public for free. If these spaces and availabilities to modern technology were not welcoming and open without charge, it is possible that the people who look to libraries to provide these services would simply have no other place to turn. Without access to internet and other technologies, these people, similar to the traditional library, would have an impossible task of reaching the rest of society.  When you think about the role that the public library system has in everyday communities in that regard, we again begin to appreciate libraries for what they truly are.

View of the main reading room of the New York City Public Library.

The main point to take from the presence of our libraries today is that we would not have them if it were not for our government’s funding and support. The role of the government in the lives of its people can become controversial in such a democracy as ours, but the existence of our national library systems proves to be a necessary intervention for the overall betterment of the American people.  From the beginning of the public library, this has been a fundamental principle, and this should continue throughout the future.