Sunday, August 30, 2015
The Kids We Hate: Ours
State legislators do it. U.S. Congress men and women do it. Americans even support them when they do it. Who are they doing it to? Our children. We really have been able to dissociate how we treat children in the United States from any semblance of how that just might impact our future economic and political viability.
Let’s start with public primary and secondary education. In global comparison testing, American students wound up 30th (out of 64 countries tested) in math, 23rd in science and 20th in reading/ comprehension. We used to be first in each of these categories. These results are simply not competitive, as legislators and Congress-people brag about all we have accomplished to become the world’s greatest economic, military and political powerhouse.
But these braggarts are relying on the efforts and accomplishments of those who came before them, the investments of generations of America past, the commitment to excellence in education that has simply vaporized from our vastly greater commitment to austerity, lower taxes for the mythological “job creators” and having a military that is huge but hasn’t won a major military contest since World War II. Looking at recent budget trends, which continue into the present:
“At least 35 states [provided] less funding per student for the 2013-14 school year than they did before the recession hit. Fourteen of these states have cut per-student funding by more than 10 percent.” A 2014 research report (inflation adjusted) from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. For some strange reason, these elected officials believe we can coast on past glory without investing in the future. We can’t.
Moving up the ladder to higher education. The average annual cost of college, public and private, has steadily increased over the past two decades well in excess of the cost of living just a Pell Grants and other non-lending forms of financial aid plummeted. Reliance on loans, with rising interest rates, soared. We changed our bankruptcy laws in 2005, pretty much targeting student loans, that have made what is available to everyone else, from big corporations to bigger cities to individuals with financial difficulties an almost impossible task for those with student loans: a reasonable path to discharge debts and start with a clean slate.
Students saddled with this undischargeable debt, promised jobs that would make paying these loans reasonable and feasible, now aggregate over $1.2 trillion dollars of student loans. Oh, and the jobs they are getting just don’t pay enough, on average, to service that debt. The aggregate U.S. student debt number has quadrupled and the number of defaults doubled since 2004. What’s worse, in an economy that at best is limping along with exceptionally modest growth rates, we seem to be screwing ourselves by allowing this competition-killer to get worse.
“This [massive student debt obligation] is having a crippling effect on economic activity, says Barbara O'Neill, a specialist in financial resource management for Rutgers University… ‘A lot of things are being postponed. You got what you call a crowding-out effect — people only have so much money,’ she said. ‘There’s a lot of business activity that isn’t taking place ... It’s a drag on everything.’
“Fewer people are buying homes and cars, O'Neill says, because large portions of their income are being eaten up by student loans. They're also less likely to start the small businesses that provide jobs and services that drive the economy… ‘It has tremendous effects,’ O'Neill said. ‘There’s also evidence entrepreneurial activity is down. When you have that big student-loan debt over your head, you're less likely to take risks.’” BusinessInsider.com, May 1st. We think we can tackle “income inequality” while we maintain policies like this? Really?
Our discrimination against our children starts pretty early. “In the United States, new parents aren’t guaranteed any paid time off. Instead, if they have worked for a certain amount of time at a company with 50 or more employees, they are guaranteed the ability to take 12 unpaid weeks off for the arrival of a new child.
“That leaves us in lonely company. , the United States is one of just three that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave, the others being Oman and Papua New Guinea. Over half of the countries that provide leave give at least 14 weeks off.” ThinkProgress.org, July 30, 2014. Further, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, we’re not even in the top 20 nations in any measurement of pre-K early childhood education. Access to childcare for working parents is expensive, and even with the Affordable Care Act, there are way too many children’s whose healthcare coverage falls between the cracks.
We see ads for impoverished children in war-torn, drought-stricken Africa, but the numbers here in the United States aren’t so wonderful either. “16 million kids on food stamps know what it's like to go hungry. Perhaps, some in Congress would say, those children should be working. ‘There is no such thing as a free lunch,’ insisted Georgia Representative Jack Kingston, even for schoolkids, who should be required to ‘sweep the floor of the cafeteria’ (as they actually do at a charter school in Texas).
“The callousness of U.S. political and business leaders is disturbing, shocking. Hunger is just one of the problems of our children. Teacher Sonya Romero-Smith told about the two little homeless girls she adopted: ‘Getting rid of bedbugs; that took us a while. Night terrors, that took a little while.’ …
“The U.S. has one of the highest relative child poverty rates in the developed world. As UNICEF reports, ‘[Children's] material well-being is highest in the Netherlands and in the four Nordic countries and lowest in Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and the United States.’… Over half of public school students are poor enough to qualify for lunch subsidies, and almost half of black children under the age of six are living in poverty.” Alternet.org, April 13th. Living public housing in the biggest inner city hoods carries its own litany of dangers and horrors.
We are also a hateful nation, hell-bent on punishment for juvenile offenders with little or no concern for bona fide rehabilitation. And when it comes to early teens committing serious crimes, we are one of the few nations in the world with a powerful inclination to try and punish these offender as adults. Picture a life sentence for a 14-year-old. Isn’t this incarceration decades longer, as a result, than an adult counterpart?
But there are plenty of states willing to take 12, 13 or 14-year-olds and try and punish them as if they were adults. And if they are charged and tried like adults, they often wind up in adult jails and prisons. Federal law mandates that if juvies are held in adult prisons, they must be segregated for their own protection. And for most of those, this means solitary confinement.
“Solitary confinement has long been a feature of the nation’s criminal justice system, either to punish or protect inmates, with about 75,000 state and federal prisoners in solitary across the country. [A Mississippi juvie tried as an adult], though, is emblematic of a more select and far less visible group of prisoners in solitary — children or teenagers in isolation in adult jails for their own safety.
“‘Juveniles are more vulnerable to abuse by adults, including sexual abuse, and they have rights to special protections,’ said Ian M. Kysel, an adjunct professor and a fellow at the Human Rights Institute at Georgetown University Law Center. ‘In some places that might mean putting them in juvenile facilities.’
“Putting juveniles in solitary, though, brings its own complications. Solitary confinement is increasingly being questioned — by mental health officials, criminologists and, most recently, President Obama. But experts say its effects on juveniles can be particularly damaging because their minds and bodies are still developing, putting them at greater risk of psychological harm and leading to depression and other mental health problems. In 2012, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry called for an end to the practice.
“‘There is plenty of research showing that solitary causes far more harm to kids than to their adult counterparts,’ said Dr. Louis J. Kraus, the chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago… Dr. Kraus specifically mentioned solitary’s link to post-traumatic stress disorder. ‘It induces anxiety, and it increases the risk of suicide,’ he added. ‘It is barbaric. I can’t emphasize that enough.’” New York Times, August 15th. But at least it’s consistent with a society that makes childcare expensive if not elusive, provides inferior schools to most of its young citizens, financially cripples the vast majority of kids trying for higher education and treats immature minds committing some serious crimes as if they were mature adults.
How are we to lift our heads in the chambers of developed nations if we are incapable of treating even our own children with respect, decency, providing them the support they need to become productive citizens? Why has our national proclivity to impair our own children become our national priority to the point where we really don’t even think about it anymore? Where is the shame that such conduct should attract? How does such behavior define and reflect everything that’s wrong with America today?
I’m Peter Dekom, and in order to bring this giant American ship back on track, we really need to start with how we care for and treat our own children.