Skip to main content
Bruce Lesley's picture

A few weeks ago, Melissa Harris-Perry appeared in a "Lean Forward" promotional ad for MSNBC and said:

We have never invested as much in public education as we should have because we've always had kind of a private notion of children: Your kid is yours and totally your responsibility. We haven't had a very collective notion of these are our children. So part of it is we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents, or kids belong to their families, and recognize that kids belong to whole communities. Once it's everybody's responsibility, and not just the household's, then we start making better investments.

As an advocate for children, I appreciate her last point that, in this country, we do a poor job of making the needed investments in education, early childhood, child health, and child nutrition to ensure better outcomes for our nation's children. For example, less than 8 percent of the federal budget is now invested in children and the sequestration cuts another $4.2 billion out of children's programs.

As if to underscore the point, Congress moved into high gear to pass by overwhelming margins emergency legislation to put an end to airport delays caused by the sequestration while ignoring all the cuts to children's programs. As House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said about the fast-tracked legislation addressing airline delays while leaving in place the cuts to programs of importance to children, "Seventy thousand children will be kicked out of Head Start. Nothing in this bill deals with them."

President George W. Bush's former chief strategist Matthew Dowd was also struck by how quickly Congress acted to protect air travelers, including themselves, while ignoring issues of importance to children. As he said on ABC's This Week, "The only way they're bipartisan is to do something for themselves. It's amazing the speed at which they did that." In contrast, he added, "We have this horrible shooting where all these children die in Connecticut, [yet] we can't pass gun control legislation."

As a society, we keep failing our children and there are real consequences. Among other things, a recent report by UNICEF has found that the United States has the second highest share of children living under the relative poverty line. And, as columnist Charles M. Blow of The New York Times noted, "The United States ranked 25th out of 29 in the percentage of people 15- to 19-years-old who were enrolled in schools and colleges and 23rd in the percentage of people in that cohort not participating in either education, employment or training."

This data should ring loud and clear to all Americans -- liberal, moderate, or conservative -- that we can and must do better as a society. Other countries are clearly more successful.

Sadly, rather than beginning the debate over what is the best response to improving the lives and well-being of children in America, Fox News attacked MCNBC's Harris-Perry repeatedly for expressing the notion that "kids belong to whole communities" rather than simply to their parents. According to a tweet by former Governor Sarah Palin on the matter, "Apparently MSNBC doesn't think your children belong to you. Unflippingbelievable."

But, the governor undoubtedly understands something every parent knows: caring for and being responsible for the life and well-being of a child is life-altering, overwhelming, and ever-changing. When children develop and reach various milestones and touchpoints, parents are never able to truly become experts at any stage and are always hopeful rookies learning on the fly from their family, friends, and (dare I say!) communities and schools. In fact, a frequent and common refrain from parents is that "just as you think you have finally learned how to deal with one stage of a child's life, they change."

The reality is also that, regardless of whether you are a hockey mom, an employee at Wal-Mart, parents going out to dinner on a Friday evening, or a mother running for vice president of the United States of America, there are dozens of other people -- including family, friends, educators, health professionals, and other caregivers -- who are often also entrusted with the responsibility of providing for the physical, emotional, social, and intellectual development for one's children. The fact is that both parents and the community, as partners, are critical to their success or failure of children.

But, it goes beyond that because government also plays an important role. As Mary Elizabeth Williams said:

It's about understanding the obligation that all of us share to all of our kids. It's about making sure they are educated and cared for, protected by our laws but also loved and tended to by a wider, richer circle of friends, family and neighbors. The idea that we need to work together for the general good of all -- including and most significantly for the benefit of our offspring...

As she understands, laws and the public policy choices that our elected officials make at every level of government -- school board, city council, state legislature, and Congress -- also have profound impact on our nation's children and our future. For example, Congress voted to take action and imposed across the board cuts to various programs to reduce the federal deficit, including $4.2 billion in cuts to children's programs. In response to complaints and worries that their own flights would be delayed, Congress voted to provide a fix to address airport delays while choosing inaction in protecting the 70,000 children losing Head Start. In short, public policy decisions, including the policy choice of inaction, matter greatly.

Therefore, rather than a debate about whether child rearing should be focused on either parents, the community, or government, the most important questions we need to be answering are how we can improve the lives and outcomes of our nation's children -- at the family, community, and political levels.

For example, just a few weeks ago, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer hosted Governor Palin at a rally in Phoenix, Arizona, to raise awareness against child abuse. Their "communitarian" action highlighted the importance of addressing child abuse and neglect by all of us -- family, community, and policymakers.

But, it is one thing to speak out on an issue and quite another to create a policy solution that properly supports and addresses the needs of children and families. For example, Governor Brewer declared in November 2011, "There can be no higher priority than the safety of children under state supervision." And yet, the Arizona Republic reported over a year later that:

A record number of children are in foster care. Caseworker turnover remains high, with thousands of abuse reports waiting to be investigated and caseloads that are double or triple official state standards. The conditions blamed for stressing already troubled families haven't changed and, in some cases, have deteriorated, as state budget cuts lengthened waiting lists for subsidized child care, domestic-violence shelters, substance-abuse programs and health care.

The newspaper added:

The children whose brutal deaths captured public attention last year were replaced with new names in 2012: Za'Naya Flores, Vanessa Martinez, Patrick Smith.

Beyond words, our nation must, individually and collectively, do better and make progress toward protecting and improving the lives of all our children.

As KJ Dell'Antonia of The New York Times writes about this debate:

Most Americans, most politicians, most pundits would surely agree that if America is going to invest in anything, it should be our children and their future. Few would suggest that children aren't a part of our communities, or don't merit our support. It's how to provide that support and investment that we disagree on, and that disagreement needs airing and discussion for there to be any change.

But when even the suggestion that we could make better collective investments in our youth can become a flashpoint for the rhetoric of division, the conversation about how we can better support families and care for our children becomes one we're even less likely to have.

In fact, it is the lack of real debate and action in support of children that is both outrageous and, to use Governor Palin's term, "unflippingbelieveable."

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of strongly encourages our readers to post comments in response to blog posts. We value diversity of opinions and perspectives. Our goals for this space are to be educational, thought-provoking, and respectful. So we actively moderate comments and we reserve the right to edit or remove comments that undermine these goals. Thanks!