People struggling in today’s sagging economy need lots and lots of help.  This can essentially take two forms: short-term relief and long-term opportunity creation.  The key issue becomes where this help should come from.  If we momentarily look beyond the political gridlock that seems to envelop us everywhere we turn these days, we can see that the Left and the Right both have good ideas to offer.

Short-term relief – such as housing subsidies, food stamps, and reduced or free school lunches – enable families to get by from day to day as adults look for sufficient employment to make ends meet.  The fact that this much-needed help has traditionally come largely from the government is the reason Charles Blow argues in a recent New York Times column that things will get much worse for low-income people if a republican is elected in 2012.  Armed with anti-government rhetoric, this person would likely make substantial cuts to these relief programs, thereby adding to the burgeoning population of impoverished Americans.  Although federal spending must be reigned in, applying the scalpel to the safety net would be a grave mistake.

But there is still quite a bit of substance in conservatives’ thinking.  They see less government not as an end in itself but as a way to promote more efficient problem solving by the private sector.  Those who give to charity are, as George H.W. Bush famously echoed during his presidency, a “thousand points of light” that brightly radiate ways that private individuals go to great lengths to fix problems.  However, there is simply no way charity can replace, dollar for dollar, the massive amounts of much-needed relief provided by the government.  Still, giving is a terrific way to support long-term efforts to expand opportunity.  Here is where the philanthropists we often hear about – the ones who contribute millions of dollars to mitigate problems like disease or unemployment – serve as exemplars for us all to emulate.  Indeed, the rest of this blog chronicles some of the many successes that can be achieved when people invest in opportunity.

Those suffering from the economic downturn, therefore, need help that reflects some of the best thinking on both the Left and the Right – a blend of government-supported relief and privately funded opportunity creation.