Federal Dateline

Where's the Government Commitment to Children?

by Nick Penning

Recently I've become acquainted with a Sikh family from India. They are bound together--mother, father, sons, daughter--in a way that I recall from my youth. In their family circle, parents command respect. So do teachers and other adults.

Growing up in my hometown of Springfield, Ill., we didn't see creeps on the street corner waiting to injure or abduct us. We stayed in our backyard and ventured to a neighbor's home only if invited. We were expected to be home for supper with dad and mom.

I remarked to our Indian friends' college-age daughter how difficult it must have been to be lifted up from her homeland and be placed into our fast-paced, authority-challenging, highly competitive, often abusive society. She said her family, given their minority religious status, lived in fear of corrupt and racist police in the Punjab state of India.

But nothing happened to them that came close to the terrible beating the girl's mother sustained from an assailant who knocked out her front teeth and tore her lip, broke her nose, and destroyed her glasses during a robbery of the family's business last fall … in Arlington, Va.

As I walk home from their yogurt shop along a busy highway at night, I long for the relative peace and slowness I used to feel in my hometown. But the west side of town is exploding, and locally owned businesses that used to comprise downtown are gone forever.

Predictable Harm

It's not enough to be surrounded physically by such perils of modern society. We must endure 30-second commercials that have more attention-grabbing capacity than the program we are watching. Producers spend up to three days to produce one 30-second advertising spot for TV. Cost be damned, they say, we're going to make people sit up, listen, and watch. Would that as much cash and attention could be devoted to children and their upbringing at home and at school.

Instead, Congress and President Clinton with his agreeable pen, last summer passed and signed a welfare reform law that will do immense harm to more than one million children and unwed, unskilled mothers. Now they have agreed to dump welfare recipients who are not working into a vast sea that assures nothing but the end of a 61-year-old federal commitment to try to eliminate poverty and puts angry, fed-up state politicians in charge of a federal block grant.

A human services expert who quietly resigned his high federal post because he could not defend what was done estimates as many as 60 percent of those forced off welfare will not be able to find jobs, either because the jobs do not exist or the individuals are simply unemployable.

Measly Support

So what does this say about our nation's children? They've grown up to challenge authority, not respect it, thanks to television programming, movies, and other forms of mass entertainment. And as if to validate our lack of respect for those we raise, our nation doesn't invest nearly enough into their schooling, especially to support those most in need.

Computers? Oh, you mean the one in the library. Science labs? Too dangerous. Dress codes? The law took away our right to command respect by demanding decent clothes. It's not that way in all schools, but in many areas Congress places our national resources in the strangest places--roads to nowhere (to get a member re-elected), another unnecessary submarine (because Electric Boat is the main employer), and the list goes on.

Support for children commands a measly 1.8 percent of our national treasure. Why can't politicians see the storm brewing in front of their faces? Special education is killing local school budgets, and what does it get from Washington? Not even enough to cover inflation when you figure the massive growth of youngsters with disabilities.

While technology use expands dramatically through the workplace, schools get a mish-mash of outdated equipment that can't even be networked, much of it purchased through the PTA with grocery store register receipts. This is how we are to become "first in the world?"

Divergent Prospects

Recently I spotted an ad in the subway that read: "If you're going to give your child the best, you may as well start from day one." The ad promoted a somewhat exclusive hospital for women. Doesn't every mother want the best? And what stands in the way? Poverty, in far too many families and in far too many schools.

While the stock market experienced a seven-fold increase and the nation had record low inflation last year, poverty increased 30 percent. How are we, so rich at one end and so poor at the other, going to end it?

Nick Penning is a policy analyst for AASA. E-mail: npenning@aasa.org