Failing the Moral Test

In his last public speech the much loved Hubert H. Humphrey said, "the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children..."

Reactions to preschool proposals by President Barack Obama and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, suggest that America fails that moral test. The four-year-olds being considered are not children of privilege, but are mostly the children of "the other" -- those never-named working poor and unemployed who live in the long, dark shadows cast by towers of affluence.

I am disgusted with the way children are talked about in this context. Our language defiles the beautiful children in our collective care and demeans millions of parents who struggle every day to do their best in an increasingly hostile environment.

We talk about four-year-old children as thought they are faceless fodder to be prepared for future economic utility. We talk about four-year-old children as though our loftiest dream is to lower the rate at which they are incarcerated. And we talk about people in poverty, particularly people of color, as though they are lazy, selfish and loveless.

Here are just a few excerpts from comments written in response to news articles about preschool: (and this from supporters!)

"Starting early is cheaper and more efficient and will mean that fewer children turn to crime in later life."

"Like you put them in the pre-K washing machine and scrub them clean and they come out after that."

"The more we invest in high-quality programs, the greater the economic impact. Moreover, research generally indicates that we get more 'bang for the buck' when programs are targeted at the most at-risk children."

Here's a sampling of views of families in poverty:

"Biggest problem are the parents of a lot of these kids. They are under-educated themselves. You can hear it in their speech."

"I was with a friend the other day to purchase a pet, and all this information was required, an application, qualification requirements, etc. and i thought, wow, if only they applied this to people, where there is no regulations."

"People need to stop having kids they cannot afford."

"But I don't want to pay for it. Maybe pay for it with the free cell phones the poor get and we can talk. Until then, stay out of my wallet."

And then there are the conspiracy theorists:

"Can't indoctrinate our kids early enough, can we? Why not free day care, free nannies, free weekend school, free summer camp, free baby sitters, free EVERTHING? Where does this end?"

"Federal pre-school programs are aimed at destroying family and religion."

"Don't kid yourself, the push for preschool is a political maneuver to appeal to bleeding hearts."
"Federal programs in this are so loaded down with liberal politics aimed at destroying the two things that hold the poor together -- family and religion -- that they destroy more than they create."

I write as one who presides over a private preschool in Manhattan. I could comment at length about child development, neurobiology and the utter absurdity of pre-academic "work" for 3 and 4 year olds. I could. I won't.

I just wish to remind readers that we are discussing real children, not an abstraction of children, or children as clinical fodder for researchers, or children of "the other," about whom we should cluck with a mix of pity and condescension. Pre-school is important because all 4 year-olds are vibrantly alive every day. Their friendships, negotiations, creations, crises and moments of joy are every bit as important as those of any other human. We need universal preschool so that all children can be alive today, not so they can be "useful" later on.

We have allowed our society to crumble to the point that millions of children live in highly stressed homes, with little joy, few resources and little opportunity to explore, discover, love and develop a sense of themselves in the world. Thousands of men and women commute for hours every day to service jobs (often caring for others' children) in affluent communities, leaving their own four-year-old children with elderly relatives or worse.

We can't muster the political will to insure a living wage, so millions of working poor hold two or more minimum wage jobs to pay the rent. They do this to survive, not because they are bad parents.

If we are unable or unwilling to create a society where all families can provide these experiences, the least we can do is create loving, joyful places for these children to be nourished. Shame on us for debating this as just another policy issue -- arguing about whether the "returns" will justify the investment.