The St. Louis County library system has announced it is making social workers available at several libraries as a standard part of library services. This may sound like a beneficial program or, at worst, a harmless—if slightly wasteful—one. I don’t think it is. I think it is a clear example of a much larger problem.
The county library announced Wednesday that the social workers will provide free assistance to connect people with resources and referrals regarding things like child care, health care, parenting resources, housing, food insecurity, substance abuse and jobs.
People used to have neighbors, fellow church members, extended family, or more to help them get through difficult situations. Simply put, you had a community. Now, apparently, you book an appointment at the local library with an “expert” who will likely do very little beyond helping people fill out government paperwork.
I am not just a middle-aged man complaining here. (Well, perhaps I am, but I have some citations.) The changes to our culture in this respect were famously documented in the book, Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam. He tells the story of the decline of social interaction (otherwise known as social capital) through the lens of bowling leagues, which not long ago were a ubiquitous pastime for Americans and have now gone the way of the rotary phone. We spend so much time alone interacting with technology that most people, especially those in younger generations, have no desire to join an organization like the Rotary Club. When I speak at service clubs or other groups, I—age 51—am usually the youngest person there.
So why should anyone care how or if people choose to interact? We should care because it matters for our society. According to economist Isabel Sawhill, “many researchers have found that [greater] social capital is associated with higher economic growth rates, better health outcomes, and more stable democracies.”
The absence of social capital has serious harms. One of those harms for people who don’t have community to rely upon in difficult times is dependency on government. The Obama Administration had Julia, the Biden Administration has Linda. (I don’t even want to guess what type of fictional female character Trump might have created.) Julia and Linda are the fictional characters used in cartoon storylines to joyfully describe how liberal policies will take care of these women and their children (men are never around) from cradle to grave. From child tax credits to free preschool, free community college, Medicaid, Medicare, and scores of other programs, the story depicts a person dependent on government for their entire lives. But that is the all-too-real alternative for people who lack the vital social connections to weather the tougher parts of life.
Interviews with people who have had their residences taken for highway projects, urban renewal, etc., often show that the most devastating part of the process was the loss of community. Everything else can be replaced—but not the sense of belonging to a group of people who cared about you. Churches, neighborhoods, and social groups used to be the charitable foundation of our country. But as those institutions have declined, government is left as the only option when aid is needed. As any political machine hack will tell you, as bad as the service may be, at least it’s something. Too many people are willing to give up too much in exchange for that governmental “something.”
Obviously, the St. Louis County library didn’t cause any of this. Libraries can be a part of building more social capital, among many other wonderful attributes. The social problems I have described require a change to our society, and one that government should only have a minimal role in. But having a taxpayer-funded organization use tax dollars (and private grants, to be fair) to help more people access what will mostly be (let’s not deny the obvious) other tax-funded government services isn’t the answer.