A simple click of a mouse should easily tell us how many charities and government programs are directed specifically toward children. It’s a lot. It’s a lot more than the number of similar programs directed to adults, or to the general population of all ages. One of the major legislative conflicts of the last year had to do with extending the federal funding of health insurance for children. Congressional Democrats and the President chose to take their respective stands on that issue because it was the ultimate causus belli. After all, if the President wouldn’t even fund health insurance for children, that proved what a hard-hearted ideologue he really is. The fact that American adults between 18 and 65 have no federal help paying for health care can conveniently be ignored, because…. Well, why? Most of us don’t even think about it.
Because, I think, we presume that adults of working age can take care of themselves, and if, by making various bad choices in their adult lives, they can’t take care of themselves, they deserve their plight. But their children didn’t make bad choices, except [snark alert] in their selection of parents. The children had no choices at all. Therefore they deserve whatever help we can give them without putting a crimp in our own lifestyles.
The problem, of course, is that while we simultaneously believe in the individual responsibility of able-bodied adults and the utter innocence of children, we also believe in the family, which means that almost all of the deserving children in question come attached to some undeserving adult. A decade ago, Newt Gingrich tried to unravel that conundrum by urging that children of indigent single parents be placed in orphanages. A century ago, that was the standard solution. It fell out of use because child welfare advocates discovered that even the children of the undeserving poor fared better–survived longer and were healthier–with their own families than in institutions, and that furthermore it was cheaper to pay poor women to care for their own children than to place them in even the vilest of institutions. The Aid to Dependent Children program was not devised to help single mothers; it was designed to provide care for their children at the lowest possible cost. No one but a mother would be willing to provide 24/7 child care for two children at $396 per month. (Yes, gentle reader, that’s the current TANF grant, as of December 2007.) So Gingrich’s proposal never caught on, for purely monetary reasons.
But every now and then, somebody discovers that assisting poor families to raise their own children actually raises the living standards of the adults in the family, and once again we go out hunting for the undeserving adults. Not long after Gingrich’s immodest proposal, somebody discovered that the families of children with disabilities, who were receiving SSI (a minimal Social Security grant roughly twice the magnitude of AFDC) were able to afford cars, television sets, and other luxuries inappropriate to their station in life, and yet another witchhunt was launched, leading to many deserving children getting dumped off the SSI rolls. The SSI grant in question, these days, is $603 per month.
This problem has found its way into the private sector as well. If a parent dies leaving either a substantial life insurance benefit or some kind of wrongful death suit proceeds to the children, usually the other parent is named guardian, and is supervised by the court in the management of that money. At least here in Cook County, the judges in question also assume that those funds are for the benefit of the children only, and usually that they should be left intact until the children are ready for college, or suffer a serious medical emergency. If in the meantime they have to live on the street rather than use the money to buy a house, those are the breaks. The parent who provides these benefits has to do a really good job of drafting a will to relieve the surviving parent of this supervision. Otherwise, the court presumes, it is the job of the surviving parent to provide for the children’s ordinary expenses out of her (usually) own earnings. Most of us presume that any life insurance funds we leave our children should be used for the benefit of the whole family. Put it in writing, folks, or you may bequeath your spouse a pile of trouble.
Except–sometimes the spouse is the problem. Men who pay child support to the mothers of their children often have trouble with the idea of letting “the ex” control that money. Some perfectly well-intentioned men–not deadbeat dads at all–actually ask me (in my incarnation as a divorce lawyer) whether there is any way the child support can be paid into a trust fund for the child’s college education. Getting the child from here to the gate of the college is the ex’s problem, apparently. One such father, when I pointed out that in the meantime the child needed to be housed and fed, said indignantly, “You mean my kid has to pay rent?” (I reminded him, as delicately as possible, that a two-bedroom apartment rents for more than a one-bedroom apartment, so unless he wanted the kid sleeping in the kitchen, somebody would have to pay rent on his behalf.)
Speaking of getting from here to the college gate, of course, brings us to the one institution that is operated for all of our children, and only for children–the schools. Obviously, if a society is trying to do good for the children of undeserving parents without giving aid and comfort to the parents, the schools are the place to do it. Kids not getting enough to eat? Feed them lunch, and even breakfast, at school. Kids not reading enough? That’s what school libraries are for. Kids not getting enough exercise? Send them to P.E. Kids living in chaotic environments? Keep the schools rigidly structured. Kids dressing poorly? Put them in school uniforms or at least impose a dress code. Fathers not home? Hire male teachers, and whenever possible, put them in charge. Nobody home till suppertime? Extend school hours. Nobody taking the kid to the doctor? Hire a school nurse. Do everything for the children that can possibly be done, so long as it is done outside their homes and cannot possibly benefit or even be credited to the parents. But the data, and the teachers, tell us that even at their best, the schools cannot fill all of the deficiencies of homes and neighborhoods full of poor adults. The best thing an indigent parent can do for her children is move to a middle-class neighborhood. But middle-class neighborhoods feel obliged to protect themselves and their children by excluding just such indigent parents and their children, and they have the clout to do it.
We Americans pride ourselves on having no social class system, and above all no hereditary caste system. Any child born in America can grow up to be president. Except that most of the things that can put a child on the road to achievement are perquisites of where the child grows up. And that in turn is determined by the achievement, or lack of it, of the child’s parents. We aren’t keen on the right of a child to inherit his parent’s wealth, if any. But we believe strongly in the right of a parent to bequeath his wealth to his children. And the most important form of wealth most of us have is our homes–not merely the four corners of the building in which we live, but its location and the perks that go with that location. Those of us who can, give our children all the “advantages” we can afford, mostly having to do with safe neighborhoods and good schools. For the children of those who can’t, we collectively and grudgingly provide charity and public benefits, all carefully arranged so as to give no benefit to their parents.
Google “inequality” and you’ll find the most recent data on the number of poor people whose parents were poor and whose children are poor. It’s a very large proportion, and last I heard, it’s getting larger every day. Our dream of saving the deserving children without rewarding their undeserving parents isn’t working. It’s right up there with rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time. And since we would rather deprive millions of innocent children, and sometimes even ourselves, of deserved benefits than grant such benefits to a single undeserving adult, this situation isn’t going to change any time soon.