Suffer the Little Children

When I was growing up in the fifties, my parents, grandparents, and all the adults I knew lived an ethic of sacrifice. During the Great Depression and World War II they'd learned it was sometimes necessary to sacrifice for our children. This moral precept used to be shared throughout the U.S., but recently it's been lost. As a consequence, Congress now threatens to abandon America's children.

Americans cherish the notion that we are the number one nation on earth; that no matter what the metric is the U.S. comes out ahead of other countries. But that's far from the truth when the focus is on how we treat our children. A recent study rated developed nations in terms of a children's index and the U.S. came in 34th out 43 -- Sweden was number 1 and Bosnia 43; Canada was 21 and England 24. The Children's Index included infant mortality and in 2009 the U.S. had an infant mortality rate of 6.3 percent. According to the UN that placed us 33rd among 195 nations (the CIA ranked us 46th among 226 nations) -- Iceland was number 1, while England and Canada were 22 and 23. Furthermore, among industrialized nations only Mexico has a higher percentage of children living in poverty than does the US.

We're not only not number one in terms of how we treat our children, but over time our ranking has deteriorated. Why? What's happened to us?

Despite our differences on other issues, Americans once agreed on the necessity for caring for all our children. For Christians this ethic stemmed from Jesus' teaching, "And who shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me" (Matthew 18). For legalists, the admonition derived from the Parens Patriae concept in English common law, the notion that the King was ultimately the "father" of all children and, therefore, the state could intercede to protect them. Then something shifted in our collective morality.

Perhaps this change can be attributed to a new generation of conservative Christian doctrine that pays more attention to whether or not an individual adheres to the dogma of a particular denomination rather than whether the believer follows the teachings of Jesus. Thus, while the U.S. continues to be a "Christian" nation, there has been savage infighting among the factions and our children have often been the "collateral damage."

Perhaps it's the new racism. Starting with Ronald Reagan's successful 1980 presidential campaign, Republicans -- as part of their "Southern strategy -- adopted "stealth" racism. It became politically incorrect to denigrate people-of-color because of their race or ethnicity and instead politicians suggested that minorities did not deserve the same privileges as white folks because they were "lazy" -- this was the import of Reagan's infamous "welfare queen" remark. This stance "justified" cutting back on welfare, housing, medical assistance, education, and social support in general on the grounds that people-of-color were leeches. And in this blanket indictment, children were dismissed along with their parents.

Perhaps we've gotten lazy. In a recent TIME magazine article, journalist Fareed Zakaria proffered a simple explanation for our ethical deterioration: "America's success has made it sclerotic." In metric after metric the U.S. has fallen from number one to a lower rank: we're now number 6, among developed nations, in higher-education enrollment, number 28 in "perception that working hard gets you ahead," number 84 in "domestic savings rate" and on and on.

As Americans have grown complacent, our political discourse has been dumbed down. These days politicians make exaggerated statements and U.S. voters lap it up without questioning the truth of what they hear. We're told "government is the problem" and tax cuts will solve all our woes. As political comedian Will Durst delights in pointing out, Americans now believe in "free beer;" many citizens appear to be convinced they can enjoy governmental services for free. As a consequence, Americans want good schools, but they don't want to pay for them.

New York Times columnistPaul Krugman observed that the victims of this cavalier attitude are our children. America's sclerosis threatens every aspect of child welfare from health services to education. For example, House Republicans propose to slash WIC the widely acclaimed program to feed pregnant women and infants. WIC is the acronym for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children that provides care for low-income pregnant women, breastfeeding women, and infants and children under the age of five. It's supported by overwhelming scientific data showing that prenatal and infant nutrition is the major determinant of a child's health and intelligence. (Some Republicans also want to repeal child labor laws.)

Whatever the reason, America appears to have lost the ethic that it's necessary to sacrifice in order to ensure our children have a better life. In fact, Republicans would rather cut Federal programs that benefit our children -- programs that are demonstrably successful -- than they would tax millionaires.

How low will Americans sink before we realize that our collective narcissism is jeopardizing the future of the U.S.? Or are we willing to abandon our children?