Monday, January 20, 2020

Does America Hate Its Children?

New York Times opinion columnist and Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman last week posed the question, "Why does America hate its children?" His evidence of this "hate" is to point out statistics that show we are the only advanced country on earth to provide no paid maternity leave (let alone paternity leave), that we spend six times less on benefits to families with children than Europe, and that we allow our school lunch programs to work "as a disposal site for farm surpluses" while other nations teach their children about good nutrition. Krugman answers his question by linking our "hatred" of children to our "hatred" of poor people:

These days, political support for programs that aid children is surely hurt by the fact that less than half the population under 15 is non-Hispanic white. But even before immigration transformed Americans ethnic landscape, there was a widespread perception that programs like Aid to Families With Dependent Children basically helped Those People -- you know, the bums on welfare, the welfare queens driving Cadillacs . . . This perception undermined support for spending on children. And it went along with a widespread belief that aid to poor families was creating a culture of dependency, which in turn was the culprit behind social collapse in America's inner cities . . . The result was a decline in assistance for poor children who needed it most.

More than one in five American children live in poverty, by far the highest childhood poverty rate in the industrialized world. Human children are by definition dependent, yet our policies seem designed to punish them for the sin of choosing to be dependent upon a poor family. Is it hatred? Probably not, but from a policy perspective it's a moot point. As developmental psychologist and author Alison Gopnik points out, the central project of every human community is to care for children, and we are, as a society, doing our jobs very poorly. Indeed, even middle class and well-to-do families farm child care out to low income, low status workers, almost as if they're an inconvenience, like mowing the lawn or cleaning the gutters. And heaven protect anyone who suggests that we enact the kinds of policies that other modernized nations have to provide universal paid child care. No, we would rather blame individuals than admit that our system is broken.

Krugman writes that this is a subject about which we aren't talking enough about, so I'm taking up that challenge today. We have elections coming up and this issue is on the ballot. I am not endorsing anyone, but so far Elizabeth Warren is only major candidate talking about this in a detailed way. I'm also not saying that her plan is a good one, although I like many aspects of it. What I am saying is that every candidate should be talking about this, at every level of government, because not only is it a crisis for children, the solutions (or non-solutions) impact every other major issue from the economy to education to the environment. As a participant in the democratic process of self-governance, I am asking the question, "What are we going to do about this?" I don't have the answers. I do, however, know that children's lives are better in most comparable nations so answers are out there if only we would feel the urgency to talk about them.

Until we are prepared to give children the right to vote, they are counting on us to speak for them.

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