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January 18th, was Martin Luther King, Jr., day. On that day, I sat through a program honoring the life and work of Dr. King and could not help but feel my tribute was superficial. It was Dr. King’s efforts that resulted in the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, exactly one week after his assassination. While discrimination on the basis of race has declined (certainly not disappeared) discrimination on the basis of mental ability is alive and well. Actually, we don’t say “mental ability,” we say “income,” or “personal merit.” Discrimination on the basis of merit is, in fact, a core principle of public administration. Disability does not trump merit.
We all know that everyone is capable of making a living wage if they just were willing to work. We all know that the homeless are just basically lazy. This is a foundational part of our national myth. Everyone who really wants a job can get one. Success or failure is based on personal will power. Failure is the result of lack of character. Anyone can be president.
And yet we know that is not true.
One challenge to democracy articulated by Madison in Federalist 10 was the tyranny
of the majority. Consequently, we established a Bill of Rights to protect individual rights. But this was still predicated on the assumption that individual success and failure is a function of character and will, not genetics or circumstance.
Accountability based on merit is the watchword for today’s public administration.
By definition 50 percent of our population has an IQ of less than 100. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older– about one in four adults–suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development an estimated 671,888 people were homeless in January 2007 most with mental illnesses or addiction problems. This is the reality whose logical conclusions we ignore.
Homelessness is one of the greatest challenges to our construction of democracy. Democratic theory is based on premises that everybody is equal and everybody has an equal chance. We say it. We depend on it. And yet we know it is not true. There are millions of people with diagnosed mental illnesses that are not severe enough to get them institutionalized, but enough that it is difficult to impossible for them to hold down a job. And without a job, you have small chance of maintaining a roof over your head. The homeless have little income, little education and little representation. Any time a segment of the citizenry has significant needs and is effectively unrepresented in the democratic process, there is a challenge to the very concept of democracy.
What does this say to we who pledge allegiance to “liberty and justice for all?” There is cognitive dissonance where the reality of human abilities clashes with our national ideal. The United States has never been able to synthesize its individualist foundational myth, with the reality of human capabilities (or the lack of it).
George Frederickson’s challenge from the 70s is as real today as 30 years ago. Who represents the unrepresented? Who champions the marginalized? Who stands for those who do not have the ability to secure their basic human needs with any consistency. Frederickson argued that public managers have an obligation to make democracy real by making social equity a third pillar of public administration–equal to economy and efficiency. But his (and many others’) normative assertion has rarely defeated individualism and accountability.
We have never been able to answer the challenge of what we will do with our lesser-abled citizens. We pass equal right legislation but whisper (or even shout) about reverse discrimination. We pass disability legislation but complain about the cost. We cling to our dichotomies. You are either insane and must be institutionalized or you can work for a living. If you cannot hold a job it is your fault and you must face the consequences of your lack of “individual accountability.” We choose to ignore in our public discourse that there are those who are unable to hold a job, but not incompetent enough to be institutionalized. We close our eyes to the logical conclusions of our myth which says “those who do not work will not eat.” Garrett Hardin’s Lifeboat Ethics hang unspoken in the air We just cannot afford the poor.
In these difficult times we need to reassert to public managers and ourselves the importance of a commitment to social equity as a logical necessity for true democracy. How to truly achieve democracy is, indeed, the biggest question for public administration. Putting a roof over everyone’s head should be our tribute to the legacy of King.
ASPA member Jonathan Anderson is associate professor of public administration at the University of Alaska Southeast. He is an elected member of the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly and struggles with issues of homelessness in Alaska. Email: [email protected]