If you do a Google news search with the word “infant,” the majority of stories that you’ll see are about abused, and frequently murdered, babies. The stories invariably recognize what a tragedy it is for an innocent child to suffer. Some heap blame on the abuser.
If you Google “child development program,” you’ll see a lot of stories about proposed cuts. If you Google “mental health care,” it is more of the same. Look up “child welfare,” and you’ll find stories about social workers overwhelmed with caseloads they cannot possibly serve well. We can wring our hands about tragedy, but we do not seem motivated to prevent it.
Perhaps this is because people relate to other people, not to populations. So ”Baby Lindsay” is someone we can grieve. We can look at her picture on the evening news, smile or cry at the sight of those big eyes and think about the bright future she might have had if circumstances had been different. But “at-risk children” as a group are not so relatable. We don’t see their freckles or imagine them doing Itsy Bitsy Spider. They are a line item; one that invariably gets cut.
If the prospects for our most vulnerable children are ever going to get better, we adults need to broaden our vision. In general, we do not improve children’s lives one by one. We must invest in better schools, start parenting education programs and make sure that the basic needs of every family are met. Real change for the 5.3 million American babies living in poor or low income families will happen at the community, city, state and national levels.
I am not saying that child abuse always follows poverty. Most parents, regardless of income, are loving and responsible people. But as a rule, we know that risk of abuse increases with parental stress and that poverty is a toxic stressor. We also know that living in poverty increases the chances that a child will die in his or her first year from a number of other causes: like homes not up to code, inadequate child care, poor access to health care and so on.
We let that happen. Poverty is at its core a rather simple problem, a lack of resources. We could solve it by simply committing more resources to poor children. But when it comes to our children, America is shamefully cheap. As Lillian Mongeau writes in The Atlantic:
On every level—local, state, and federal—this country invests little to nothing in the first five years of a child’s life, putting it decades and dollars behind the rest of the developed world.
Mongeau notes that the only time in our history when we provided universal pre-school was during World War II. This was not, of course, because we know that preschool is good for children. It was because mothers were needed in the factories.
As a nation, we spend just 10 percent of our budget on kids. The Urban Institute found that between 2004 and 2014, federal spending on child welfare decreased 16 percent. National spending and conditions for children are strongly linked. The child poverty rate in the U.S. is 21 percent. Sweden, Norway and Finland invest much more in their children than we do. Their child poverty rates run from 2.8 to 4.2 percent.
Sharing a bed with a parent is the greatest risk factor for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). New Jersey has just now started giving out sturdy boxes with small mattresses as a strategy to prevent SIDS. Finland has been doing this for 75 years. New Jersey will fill the box with necessities like diapers, clothing, etc., as Finland does.
Finland began the baby box program to combat a high infant mortality rate. Any mother could get one – but she had to go to her doctor for a prenatal visit to sign up. The boxes, full of necessities, also gave struggling families the resources they needed to get their child off to a good start. Today Finland’s infant mortality rate is half the United States’.
Finland started with the idea that there are certain essentials that are every child’s right. The baby box program is now a beloved tradition in Finland. I wonder if we Americans will ever be able to stand up for what every baby needs, to act for children on a macro level.
We say that we love children. I believe that we are being sincere, as far as our thinking goes. Cornel West said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” This love we feel for babies needs to become public. It needs to scale up. It needs to transition from sentimentality to action.