A war on children permeates much of the political discourse today. It is destructive and it must be stopped.
The late Whitney Houston sang “I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.” It seems that those lyrics have all but been forgotten. Political rhetoric typically casts children as “America’s Future” when it is politically convenient; but political action tells a much different story.
Consider the (successful) push to cut public aid. Infamously, Mitt Romney referred dismissively to the 47% of people in the United States who receive some sort of government aid. Examining a breakdown of this figure, we see that over sixty percent of these households earn under $20,000 dollars a year. While they reveal an obvious shortfall, these numbers don’t do a very good job of illuminating the percentage of children affected, so let’s spell it out.
Children suffer disproportionately in the United States. According to the Center for Children in Poverty nearly half (45%) of all children live in low-income families. The US Census indicates that, in 2012, about half of those children, 21.8 percent of all children were in poverty. Compare that to people aged 18 to 64 (13.7 percent) and people aged 65 and above (9.1 percent).
It is easy to blame the working poor for their in ability to earn a living wage. Especially since Reagan’s politically skillful use of the image of the “young buck” and the “welfare queen,” the poor, working or not, have been cast as individuals who make decisions which lead to their miserable situations. Even if one accepts that premise, why are children, individuals who are supposed to be mentored and taught, being held to the standards of adults? However funds are spent, when public aid is cut, children are disproportionately affected. The results are predictable: children lack the basic necessities that underwrite success. Without providing for their basic needs , we cannot say that these children have had equal opportunities to succeed. The adults who purposefully revoke these children’s access to developmental opportunities early in life are waging war on the least responsible, most vulnerable element of society..
Education is another doozie. A good predictor of what level of education children receive is the education level of their parents. Evidently, children who come from families that are well educated or working professionals tend to follow in their parents footsteps. Unsurprisingly, children who don’t have that example to follow often fail to develop those skills necessary to gain better employment opportunities.
Yet somehow we soon forget that not everyone is capable of being Dr. Ben Carson or Justice Clarence Thomas (just as those gentlemen themselves seem to have forgotten). With that, we are all too quick to cut services, namely education, that children benefit from.
Wisconsin provided the rhetorical epithets of old: teachers work too little and get paid too much. They are demonized as being inefficient and incompetent. Yet many teachers are forced to manage large, state-limit class sizes. Their ability to assign and correct the mandated reams of standardized assignments, much less foster personal improvement is crippled as teachers have to deal with more and more students: stressful for the teacher – disastrous for the students. .
Rather than questioning why few top students go into teaching (poor pay, high stress, increasing risk of job insecurity), the trend is to bag on existing teachers. That rhetoric and policy tack further dissuades (sane) top students from forsaking careers in other fields to go into teaching. Lost in the discussion are the students, children. Children are voiceless since they are do not (nor should they!) pay for their tuition. If teachers are not given the motivation or the tools to succeed, why would we expect that much from students, especially those who do not have high levels of academic support at home?
Oftentimes, the teacher-student ratio is a function of the wealth of the district. The disparities in access are notable in places where property taxes underwrite education. Ironically, those children who need the most resources to develop their skills, the bottom half for whom parental education is likely to be lacking, have substantially less in comparison to those children who need less, whose parental education is likely to be rich. It is easy to forget that the poor were once children, and the assault on their opportunity is a significant reason for stagnation.
Children are indeed impressionable, and following in a parent’s intellectual footsteps is not the only pattern we can recognize. According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, 7.3 million children have at least one parent in jail or prison nationally. To put that number in perspective, in 2013, there are approximately 74 million children total living in the United States. Shockingly, 1 out of every 10 kids has a parent in jail. Well, no big deal, except when we consider the frightening statistic that based on current trends, 70 percent of these kids will be imprisoned at some point in their lives. With statistics like that, the trends of asymmetric incarceration based on racial lines will only continue. But at its core, this number indicates a failure to invest in these children and given them the tools necessary and help them develop and employ those tools to buck that sickening trend.
Children who end up in the criminal justice system seem to be written off. They are subjected to adult punishments. It is as if we have forgotten what the status of child indicates. “What is a child?” is a question that we must ask ourselves again. What differentiates children from adults? If children can be punished as adults, why are we reluctant to given them equal the adult franchise? Historically, the answers run along the lines of understanding that children are human beings who are developing. They make mistakes, poor decisions, and screw up. Such is youth. It is fine to advocate personal responsibility, but we cannot forget what children are or that they should not, normatively speaking, be held to the same standards as adults.
Treating children as adults is an assault on childhood. It disregards any hope for a better future with those people as active, positive contributors to society. Given the research out there on life courses, we know that as people grow older, they are less likely to engage in deviant behavior. Yet in the United States, we sentence children to life in prison. We put some in solitary confinement. We are the only country to do either. Those children have been barred from the future. Sadly, they are indicative of it.
Kids who are removed from society are not the only ones who are barred from engaging in a productive future. We must not forget the Dreamers, kids who were brought to the US by their parents, and as a result do not have authorization to remain. Why we should hold a minor responsible for the actions of their parent befuddles me. We do not hold children whose parents are murders accountable for their parents’ actions.
What is truly distressing about the refusal to accept these children is that they are doing everything they should in order to assimilate. In fact, assimilation is not even a proper word because, outside of their legal status, many behave, think, and talk like Americans (whatever that is supposed to mean). Yet, somehow they must be punished for a misdeed. Their very existence has been deemed wrong. It is an assault on humanity.
Within jail, there exists a hierarchy of prisoners. The lowest of the low are those individuals who have committed crimes against children. To think that these individuals are the worst offenders against children, in terms of scale, is laughable. The war waged against children by politicians is far more damaging and it must be stopped.