Thursday, April 30, 2015

How much recreation is too much?

On monday night Town Meeting decided to amend the budget to double the recreation subsidy given to low income families, from about $100,000 per year to $200,000 per year. Apparently, funds were running out half-way through the year. There are roughly 1,000 low-income kids in Amherst, so if they all participate in LSSE programs we'll be giving each $200 worth of swimming or sports or after-school-programs.

I don't know how to think about that. Is $200-per-kid-per-year enough? Too much? Just right? I'm sure there are families that can't afford even a heavily subsidized rec fee. And there are probably families too proud to accept a subsidy; maybe LSSE programs for kids should be free to everybody, so nobody need feel embarrassed asking for the subsidy.

And how should Town Meeting members weigh spending $200,000 per year on increasing recreational opportunities versus fixing potholes or hiring more police?

If we gave lower-income families a choice between getting either a $200 subsidy for LSSE programs or getting $200 in cash, I think most would take the cash. There is probably some Massachusetts law preventing Towns from giving people cash grants, but it seems to me it would be better to empower parents to make decisions like "should I spend money on a math tutor or swim lessons or brake pads for the car."

A lot of our social safety net seems like micromanagement to me. I wonder if that is mostly due to progressives who think of the State as a "nurturing mother" with a duty to take care of each of her children's needs ("gotta be sure to provide environmentally friendly housing and nutritious food and liberal education and healthy recreation and...").

Or if it is due to conservatives who think of the State as a "strict father" with a duty to prevent or punish his children's bad decisions ("can't just give cash, they might spend it on Bad Things").

Probably both. So I expect I'll spend a lot more time sitting in Town Meeting listening to heartfelt appeals to increase recreation opportunities for children by increase subsidies for LSSE or increase safety for children by hiring more police or firefighters or increase education for children by hiring more teachers or increase the health of children by giving benefits to part-time Town employees.

In the grand scheme of things, I suppose that's not so bad-- it would be worse if Amherst was spending money to bomb someplace far away "to benefit future generations of children."