One of the most illusive and generally misunderstood creatures on the planet is the wily and cantankerous Human Child. Its curious combination of guile and ignorance is virtually unequalled among mammals. This peculiar quadruped is almost totally dependent upon its mother for the first three years of life, and requires an unusually high degree of nurturing during the first twelve to fifteen. While numerous studies have been undertaken to try and understand the physical, emotional, and social development of this most exceptional member of the animal kingdom, the Human Child remains, by and large, the stuff of the Discovery Channel and Mad Magazine.
Historians may one day look back on Twenty-first Century American culture with bewilderment and shock with regard to the position and state of being of children in society. Never before in human history has there been such a gross deficit in parenting skills, aptitude, and basic knowledge as exists today at both the familial and societal levels of child rearing. The techniques, traditions, moral underpinnings, and responsibilities passed down from one generation to the next in virtually every culture to precede it, were somehow replaced by systemic apathy, rank consumerism, an almost total disappearance of the work ethic, and a laissez faire attitude on the part of government and society as a whole with respect to the psycho-social development of America’s children. The relentless pursuit of officially licensed sports apparel, I-pods, soccer trophies, and Barbie Dolls has replaced household chores, apprenticeships, community service, and “kicking the can;” and the personal fulfillment that comes with learning to read, write, experiment, and explore has given way to calculators, video games, spell-check, and the Cineplex. For the wealthy children of America, appreciation of History, Philosophy, Literature, and Science is developed on teen tours, cruises, and Euro-Disneyland. For the masses, the Crocodile Hunter has replaced the Museum of Natural History; Chemistry is learned in Meth labs, poetry is the Black-eyed Pees, and a young boy’s idea of a father figure is Puff Daddy.
What’s worse is that the of poverty in America are not working-age men or single mothers, but children who grow up in circumstances devoid of hope or opportunity. The result has been a social misfortune whose proportions are deepening and which we are only beginning to appreciate. Although its physical form can be seen in the blighted neighborhoods of most major cities, its impact on the hopes and dreams of the poor, especially poor children, is not so visible. For our government to invest the minimal amount in the development of poor children is unwise in the extreme, since children represent one of society’s most valuable human resources.
To allow for children from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed will require more than additional spending on education. Without question, adequate school funding is vital. But to alter the life trajectories of young people will require a fundamentally different approach.
Our first step is to acknowledge that a structural problem is the root cause of the continuing child poverty in our county. Our residual approach to children and their needs says, in effect, that poverty is somehow the fault of the child who must demonstrate eligibility for public aid. That is mindset that must be changed.
Although child support, and children’s allowance reforms will go a long way toward reducing child poverty, they will not eliminate the elemental causes of child poverty. We need a bold new approach that implements fundamental reform—a Marshall Plan of sorts directed at child poverty that has the potential of substantially changing the socioeconomic status of poor children and the way society approaches their physical, emotional, psychological, educational, and social development.
To be effective, any program intended to rectify the problem of child poverty should be universally applied and must begin before the child is born. With teen pregnancy being a major factor in the perpetuation of the cycle of poverty, the fight against child poverty must begin with Sex Education in the schools and continue through all stages of a child’s development until adulthood. Programs that provide opportunity during the child’s transition to adult life, their emancipation from the family and embarkation into adult responsibilities, are essential ingredients for any comprehensive child welfare reform. Unless imaginative programmatic efforts to break the cycle of poverty are undertaken, that will provide children the escape velocity to break out of patterns established over years, even generations, we have little chance of ending poverty among children.