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Government’s Vital Role in Helping People Thrive

Spending a little on early intervention can save a lot of money over the long term and help people function in society. Systems thinking provides a framework for preventing failure.

A money tree.
For a society to be viable, its people need to be able to function successfully within its norms and rules. Developing people in such a way that they can contribute to the betterment of society is critical to that society's health. When some portion of its people fail to function within the norms and rules of that society, the system has failed and there are consequences.

We expect people in our society, at a minimum, to function within the law. We also expect them to get an education, to be productive and earn money, to have relationships, perhaps to raise a family, to form a household and buy goods, pay taxes and ultimately retire. We certainly hope they will contribute something to their society beyond taxes.

When people struggle to function successfully in society, is it government's job to step in and help them thrive, or is it government's job to fix the system that led to their struggles? The answer to both questions is yes.

Systems thinking provides a framework for understanding how our society works. A system is any group of interacting, interrelated or interdependent parts that work to serve a complex specific purpose. Our society is a complex system made up of a collection of subsystems. It relies not only on efficient government but also on a functioning family system, an effective education system, a supportive social system and a productive economic system. The degree to which all of these subsystems meet the needs of our citizens is the degree to which our societal system is effective.

An example of a system failure is a teenager who drops out of high school, increasing the likelihood that he or she will become unemployed, commit a crime and end up in prison. A high-school dropout has a 30.8 percent chance of spending his or her life in poverty, and because of the socioeconomic forces at play is 63 times more likely to end up in prison than a college graduate. In some societies that would be acceptable, but in what we idealize as a land of equal opportunity this young person is being dealt the short straw.

There are other failure types that are far more costly in both human and economic terms. Sexual abuse, an often hidden but widespread system failure, is a major driver of pain, suffering and cost in our society: One out of every four girls is sexually abused, as is one out of six boys. A sexually abused girl has a far greater likelihood than her peers of being cognitively underdeveloped, of abusing substances, getting pregnant as a teenager, committing a violent crime, suffering from mental illness and ending up in prison. Eighty-two percent of incarcerated women were victims of serious sexual or physical abuse.

I relate these disturbing statistics because I believe we need to rethink the role of government as a system. The simple reality is that when people fail to thrive, some part of that system - perhaps law enforcement, social services, health care or a combination of them -- will have to deal with the failure.

Prevention is far less costly than failure. In the world of products it is not unusual for a defect to cost 10 times as much to fix once it is in use by customers than it would have cost to have prevented the problem at the factory. For that teenager at risk of dropping out of high school and into prison, the cost to society is huge. In California, incarceration costs $75,560 per year for each inmate, more than the cost of a year of studies at Harvard.

I am not proposing we send high-school dropouts to Harvard, but that investing in their success is far less costly to government and to society than doing nothing and then paying for their failure. While there have been scattered successes from direct intervention by government agencies, some of the best examples of effective programs come from nonprofits and other non-governmental organizations that intervene in the lives of kids who otherwise would likely fail.

One example of this kind of successful intervention is the work of Friends of the Children in Portland, Ore., which since 1993 has assigned professional mentors to at-risk kids early in their educational life. A study by the Harvard Business School Association of Oregon has shown that every $1 spent on these kids saves society $7. The results are impressive: Eighty-three percent of these youth graduate from high school, 93 percent avoid the juvenile-justice system and 98 percent avoid early parenting.

Government, with its central role in the systems that make up our society, has a lot at stake in advancing these and other efforts that increase the likelihood its citizens will thrive in modern society. Failure is far more costly than success, in both human and economic terms.

Senior fellow, Governing Institute
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