INDIANAPOLIS – Yes, this is the third column on townships. Be patient; the end to this series is in sight.
          
Originally, townships were to be perfect squares of six miles in each direction, or 36 square miles. They were to maintain public roads, provide public education, provide relief for the poor, and help maintain public safety.
       
Today, the average Indiana township has 35.5 square miles of land area. That fact would make the surveyors who laid out our townships pretty happy. However, Union Twp. in Montgomery County. is the largest at 111.6 square miles, while Albion Twp. in Noble County has but 3.8 square miles. Why? Because the Indiana legislature in the 19th century was inclined to go along with what local folks wanted. In the 1800s, many elected officials didn’t care whether counties and townships fit what some Easterners thought would be best back in 1787.

Ask your neighbors or your representatives in today’s General Assembly, “What do townships do?” They may tell you those governmental units provide poor relief. This is almost perfectly true.

Of the 998 townships reporting to the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance for 2019, 65 had no requests for township assistance. Another 691 had fewer than 50 such requests during the year. That’s fewer than one per week. Imagine we raised our expectations to two applicants, on average, per township per year. In 2019, 82% of our townships would disappoint us. Just 175 Indiana townships saw 100 or more of the 150,000 applicants who sought assistance.

Some readers might think we have too many township offices if we have only 150,000 applicants for assistance. But others would be less inclined to render such a judgments. Townships have been defended for generations as the government unit closest to the people, because they are so numerous and require less travel than to a centralized office in the county seat. It was a great argument 200 years ago when roads were mud traces after the rain and the horse provided the energy for transport. Yet, as with many things, technology changes the environment within which we function, but does it change us?

Townships were seen by many observers in the past as a way to recognize the diversity of preferences in the population. Not everyone wants to the same government services as does his/her neighbors. The tic-tac-toe pattern set out by surveyors was not an instrument of regimentation, but a structure that invited diversity of preferences.

Perhaps we fail to see this today because we don’t have much diversity of preferences. Every place is not a place without a McBurger. Our houses must have cathedral ceilings so we can be property worshiped. Perhaps we should move more responsibility and funding to the townships and elect people who truly care about community.

More on townships next week. 
 
Mr. Marcus is an economist. Reach him at mortonjmarcus@yahoo.com. Follow his views and those of John Guy on “Who gets what?” wherever podcasts are available or at mortonjohn.libsyn.com.