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Government can't buy you love.

I remember the precise moment when I knew George Bush would not be re-elected. It was June of 1991. After two years of intense deliberations, the National Commission on Children was about to release its final report. As the ranking member of the Bush administration appointed to the commission, I was called to give a briefing to a senior official at the Office of Management and Budget on the likely contents of the commission's final report.

Although I didn't agree with everything contained in the final report, the document was remarkable in that a small band of conservatives had managed to persuade a much larger group of liberal members -- most appointed by the Democratic leadership in the Congress -- to produce a report almost completely devoid of recommendations for major expansions of social programs. Instead, against all predictions, the commission's final report strongly endorsed the two-parent family as the best environment in which to raise children, issued a call for greater responsibility and self-restraint on the part of the mass media in the messages and values transmitted to children, championed tax relief for families, and even promoted school choice.

Already picturing myself as the new under secretary at some distinguished cabinet agency, I decided to lead off the discussion with our most impressive achievement: the endorsement of tax relief for families based on the premise that what families need most is not more money in the federal budget, but more money in the family budget. I was no more than 30 seconds into my description of the tax credit proposal when I was interrupted abruptly by a string of expletives, that ended with the declaration, "What kind of idiot would want to do that?"

It was then that I first whispered to myself, "These guys just don't get it."

Liberalism's Materialist Fallacy

Children's issues are funny things. Politicians love children, and often talk about them. But when asked to translate their rhetoric into meaningful public policy, the same politicians quickly change the subject, or proceed to trot out largely symbolic initiatives, or naively demand increased funding for often unproven, and sometimes even harmful, social programs.

This tendency was a major shortcoming of the Bush administration. Without a clearly articulated set of principles to guide child and family policy, we often behaved as if we believed the same thing that many liberals do: that government can solve all problems if it spends enough money on social programs. In fact, the Bush administration oversaw a 66-percent increase in funding for children's programs, including unprecedented expansions for Head Start, the Women, Infant and Children's Food Supplement (WIC) program, childhood immunization programs, and Medicaid. Overall, we increased spending on children's programs from approximately $60 billion in fiscal year 1989 to over $100 billion in fiscal year 1993.

But in doing so, we inadvertently embraced what I call the social spending agenda for children, an agenda that views childhood as largely the result of how much government spends on social programs for children. From this perspective, the more money we spend on -- or "invest in" -- social programs for children and families, the more childhoods we ensure; the measure of how committed you are to children becomes how many tax dollars you are willing to spend on children's programs. If you are willing to spend $8 billion of the taxpayer money on Head Start and I am only willing to spend $4 billion, then under the social spending agenda you are twice as committed to children as I am.

The federal government largely has operated under such a social spending children's agenda for the past three decades. Spending by the federal government on social programs for children and families has increased dramatically since 1960, far outpacing the rate of inflation. Yet, despite this extraordinary growth in the federal spending, by almost all indicators more children today are at risk for poor developmental outcomes than were at risk three decades ago. Why?

The social spending agenda on which these policies are based overlooks the crucial role of fathers and mothers. It is not the amount of money that government, or even parents, invest in children that produces happy, healthy, and secure childhoods, but rather how much time and energy parents invest in their children. No government program, no social worker, and no economic transfer policy has ever provided a child with a happy childhood -- parents do. The more time and energy that parents invest in their children, the more childhoods are ensured.

Crazy About That Kid

This is more than simply a rhetorical debate. Government can't buy you love. What a child really needs in order to grow up feeling loved and secure is not access to government social programs, but the knowledge that there are people in this world who care enough about him or her that they will put his or her interests above their own. As the noted child psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner has written:

In order to develop -- intellectually, emotionally, socially, and morally -- a child requires participation in progressively more complex reciprocal activity, on a regular basis over an extended period in the child's life, with one or more persons with whom the child develops a strong, mutual, irrational emotional attachment and who is committed to the child's well-being and development, preferably for life.

Or, as Mr. Bronfenbrenner more colloquially put it, what is really needed to ensure a happy, healthy and secure childhood is "someone who is crazy about that kid."

Now, who is most likely to have such an irrational emotional attachment to a child? The obvious answer is a parent -- not a teacher, or a child care provider, or a social worker. This is not to denigrate the important work done by teachers or paid care givers, but rather to acknowledge an important reality: only parents can reasonably be expected to put the interests of their children above their own -- to be "crazy about that kid."

For many years, I was a practicing child clinical psychologist. During that time, I treated many clients and was relatively successful. I like to believe that my clients saw me as a caring and committed professional. But I would not have voluntarily died for even one of my patients. In contrast, I would, literally and without hesitation, die for my children. And so would most parents.

It is this irrational commitment to the welfare of a child that children need most in order to grow up healthy, happy and secure. They need to know that when they go to sleep at night, someone is there to protect them from danger; that if the house catches on fire, or burglars break into the home, or the monsters come out from under the bed, someone is there who will risk his own life to save them. That is what parents are for.

This does not mean that all parents will always put the interests of their children above their own. Indeed, some parents, especially those under the influence of powerful drugs like crack cocaine or alcohol, will even abuse their children. But just because some parents, some time, ignore or mistreat their children does not mean that the federal government should act as if parents are likely to do so. Rather, government should always assume it is parents, and not politicians or bureaucrats, who are in the best position to make decisions about the welfare of their children.

Teachers Come and Go

To grow and prosper, children also need long-term, consistent, reciprocal interactions with at least one reliable and nurturing adult. Children need to know that day in, day out, someone will be there for them, in both good times and bad.

Once again, it is parents who can most reasonably be expected to provide this long-term, reliable, and nurturing relationship. Indeed, research on so-called "invulnerable children," children who grow up to be productive and well-adjusted adults despite having lived in dismal poverty while young, has found that during childhood these children knew one adult, most often a parent or a close relative, who provided them with such a long-term, caring relationship. Teachers come and go, social workers come and go, and certainly presidents come and go; but parents and families are forever.

The bipartisan National Commission on Children understood this preeminent importance of parents and family when it wrote in its final report:

The family is and should remain society's primary institution for bringing children into the world and for supporting their growth and development throughout childhood.... Parents are the world's greatest experts on their own children. They are their children's first and most important caregivers, teachers, and providers. Parents are irreplaceable, and they should be respected and applauded by all parts of society for the work they do.

There is reason to hope that the Clinton administration understands this as well. Most notably, the Progressive Policy Institute, an important intellectual force behind Bill Clinton's early vision for the presidency, has written:

Given all the money in the world, government programs will not be able to instill self-esteem, good study habits, advanced language skills, or sound moral values in children as effectively as strong families.... in the end, government cannot replace the family, nor should it try.

Indeed, during his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, candidate Bill Clinton stated, "Governments do not raise children -- parents do."

The challenge for public policy is to take President Clinton's rhetoric seriously. What does it really mean to say it is parents who raise children, and not governments?

First and foremost, any substantive public policy agenda for children should ensure that parents have maximum authority and autonomy when it comes to raising their children. Except in cases of gross abuse, government must assume that it is parents, and not bureaucrats or politicians, who are in the best position to make decisions about their children's welfare.

One of the most important arenas where such an assumption is needed is in education. Parents are the primary and most important teachers for their children. It is, after all, from their parents that children learn their most important lessons; lessons about values, character, and standards for behavior. Yet, over the past several decades, vast sums of money have been spent on a public education system that has often distanced itself from the needs and desires of parents.

No Response to Parents

An extraordinary example of just how distant some school systems have grown from the desires of parents is the controversy in the New York City schools regarding the choice of two books for inclusion in the first grade curriculum. Here, the Chancellor of the New York City school system, despite the protestations of many, mostly minority parents, mandated the use of a first grade curriculum that included two books, Heather Has Two Mommies, depicting a lesbian couple raising a child, and Dad's Roommate, a story about a father's homosexual lover. When, due to parental concerns that instruction in sexual morality for six-year-olds should be left to parents, a community school board in Queens declined to go along with the distribution of these books, the chancellor tried to remove its members from office. Eventually, the public outcry was so overwhelming that the chancellor was forced from office. The point here is not to debate the morality of homosexuality, but to illustrate just how unresponsive some school administrators have become even to the expressed desires of parents.

Another example is the "values clarification" classes in many public schools. In such classes children are taught that there are no absolute rights or wrongs, and that all beliefs are acceptable if you can defend them. An exercise in a values clarification class might ask 13- and 14-year-olds to list six reasons why sexual intercourse is good for teenagers, and six reasons why sexual intercourse is bad for teenagers, without ever stating that 13- and 14-year-olds should not be engaging in sexual intercourse. Never mind that many parents desire to teach their children that there are moral absolutes, that there is such a thing as right and wrong; many public schools have decided to teach moral relativism in the schools. In doing so, schools risk inculcating children with values and beliefs that are in direct contrast with those that parents are trying to teach them at home.

One way to give parents more respect and responsibility in education is to give them vouchers that let them choose which school their children will attend. In order to survive financially, schools would have to compete for students. To win this competition and successfully recruit students, schools would have to respond to the needs and desires of parents. And if a school later became distant or unresponsive, parents could simply send their child elsewhere.

A Crucial Test for Clinton

Another area where public policy should respect and encourage parental decision making is child care. Most of the early legislative proposals for expanding child-care subsidies for low-income families envisioned a network of federally funded child-care centers providing free or low-cost child care to low-income families. Under these early proposals, the government would decide where the children of low-income parents would be enrolled for child care. But such a vision reflects the illusion that bureaucrats know better than parents when it comes to the welfare of their children.

A better plan is to provide low-income parents with vouchers so that they can choose their own child-care provider, whether a child-care center, a family day-care home, a religious institution, or even a relative. In fact, this is precisely what the Bush administration and the more conservative members of Congress were able to insert into the new $850 million a year Child Care Development Block Grant program. If President Clinton seriously believes that parents, and not governments, raise children, his administration will maintain the same commitment to vouchers in its executive oversight of this federal child care program.

Parents vs. Children's Rights

One must be careful not to confuse respect for parental autonomy and decision-making with empowering children, and especially with the so-called children's rights movement. Early in the 1992 presidential campaign, much attention was focused on Hillary Clinton's writings in the 1970s about children's rights. Much of the early criticism of her writings exaggerated her positions; some critics even suggested that children would be encouraged to bring suit against their parents if they did not want to take out the garbage. This, and the resulting defense of Mrs. Clinton's views by the popular press, quickly obscured what is a very important debate: When should children's concerns outweigh those of their parents?

Many advocates of children's rights would have us believe that they are only referring to situations where a child is in danger of irreparable harm if the parent's wishes are followed. But there are already many laws that protect children in these situations. For example, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974 requires states to intervene in cases where a child is in imminent danger of either physical or psychological harm at the hands of his or her parents. And to ensure that children are afforded protection in these circumstances, most professionals who regularly come in contact with children are mandated to report even the suspicion that a child is being abused or neglected by his or her parents.

In truth, children's rights' advocates intend to go much further than merely situations where a child is in imminent danger of harm. For example, children's rights advocates contend that the desires of children should override those of their parents in cases where a minor is judged to be "mature" and wishes to obtain contraceptives or have an abortion. Indeed, the state of Maryland recently passed an abortion law that specifically allows the physician performing the abortion to exempt the child from parental notification requirements if the child is determined to be mature enough to make the decision on her own.

And attempts to erode the autonomy and authority of parents do not stop at such major life decisions as whether or not to become sexually active or to have an abortion. Incredibly, under Maryland state law, if a child has his or her own library card, library staff are prohibited from divulging to parents information about their child's borrowing record, even though the parents are financially responsible for any lost books or overdue fines. The message the state of Maryland is sending to parents is clear: we the state, and not you the parent, are in the best position to determine what books your child can read. We will monitor what books your child takes out of the library; indeed, we will protect your child from any antiquated notions you might have as a parent about what books your child can read.

This is the danger of the children's rights' movement. If left unchecked, there will be a gradual erosion of parental authority over children as the number of issues grows in which a child's desires outweigh parental wishes. As oversight for the behavior of children passes to the state, parents may grow increasingly disconnected from their children, and take their parental responsibilities less seriously.

After affirming the central importance of parents in bringing up children, government policy must strive to find ways to help parents spend more time being parents. Unfortunately, over the past several decades, government policies have been doing the opposite. Because of a blind adherence to the social spending agenda, the tax burden on families with children has increased dramatically. In 1948, the typical family of four paid only 2 percent of its income to the federal government in taxes. Today it pays 24 percent, with an additional 8 to 10 percent of a family's income going toward state and local taxes. This dramatic increase in the tax burden on families with children has resulted in parents working longer hours just to stay even financially.

Exemptions and Tax Credits

What public policy must do is to begin to reverse this decades-long increase in the tax burden on families so that parents can spend less time working outside the home, and spend more time investing their time and energy in their children. The best way to do this is to increase the personal exemption for children.

In 1948, the personal exemption shielded about 80 percent of the income of a typical family of four from taxes. Over the years, the value of the personal exemption has been so eroded by inflation that today it shields far less of a family's income from taxes. Indeed, in order to shield an amount of a family's income from taxation equal to 1948 levels, the personal exemption for children would have to be raised from the current level of $2,300 to about $8,200 per dependent child -- which is precisely what should be done.

For families too poor to be helped by an increase in the personal exemption, an effective vehicle for accomplishing the same goal is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The EITC is essentially a wage supplement for individuals who work outside the home, but who do not have a sufficient tax burden to benefit from an increase in the personal exemption for children.

Increasing the EITC for poor families, as President Clinton called for in his State of the Union Address, would have the same result as increasing the personal exemption for more well-to-do families; more money would be available to low-income families to use as they see fit for the benefit of their children. Besides giving families more time together, Washington would be sending the important message that the government understands that parents know best when it comes to the welfare of their children, and that government trusts them to decide how to spend their own resources.

Acknowledging that parents are the most important ingredient in securing happy, healthy and secure children, is not to deny that there is a role for government programs in supporting parents. Indeed, there are times when parents can be assisted, sometimes substantially, by social support programs. But in doing so, such programs should always emphasize parental responsibility, respect the integrity of the family, and maximize parental choice.

Keeping Head Start Family-Friendly

One successful government program with these characteristics is Head Start. A comprehensive child-development program for low-income children, Head Start has always emphasized that children live within the context of a family, and that parents are the primary educators of their children. Such a philosophy has led Head Start to require each participating program to install a Parent Policy Council, which in turn provides direct oversight of preschool program activities and approves all staffing decisions. Indeed, if the administrators of the Head Start grant become disconnected from the interests of parents, the Parent Policy Council can require the federal government to find new administrators to run the Head Start program. In addition, all parents with children enrolled in Head Start are actively recruited to participate in the program, resulting in the startling fact that nearly 40 percent of all paid staff in Head Start are parents of current or formerly enrolled children.

But even with Head Start there is danger lurking for parents. There are many in Congress who now advocate making Head Start a full-day, full-year program, under the premise that many of the children enrolled in Head Start have parents who work full-time outside the home. Certainly where both parents, or in the case of single-parent households the sole parent, are employed full-time outside the home, the Head Start program should be able to provide full-day, full-year care; these children can't simply be sent home from Head Start to an empty house.

But according to the Head Start Bureau in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, fewer than half of all children enrolled in Head Start live in homes where the parents are employed full-time. In cases where there is a parent in the home, preschoolers should be spending much of their time at home with their parents, learning from them and being nurtured by them, rather than in a full-day, full-year Head Start program. Indeed, should Head Start become a full-day, full-year program for all Head Start enrollees, it would become yet another social program that, albeit inadvertently, is taking children away from parents rather than supporting them.

Reforms in the Workplace

If our society is truly serious about helping families spend more time being families, the private sector must recognize its role as well. For far too long, businesses have operated as if employees with children were at best a nuisance, and at worst a liability. Business must come to understand that the future work force is nurtured and shaped primarily by parents, and therefore it is in business's long-term interest to support employees in their role as parents. After all, it is from parents that children learn such behaviors as perseverance, hard-work, responsibility, and honesty -- all attributes of a good employee.

The federal government can help business recognize its role in supporting parents by encouraging employers to develop family-friendly work policies, such as career sequencing, home-based work stations, job sharing, flexible work schedules, part-time employment, and family and medical leave, so that parents can find more time to be with their children. Businesses should also be encouraged to develop a family-resources office where employees can gain information on child development and parenting; receive information on family community support services; and negotiate family-friendly employment arrangements.

However, in an effort to encourage family-friendly work environments, Washington should be careful not to embrace a "one size fits all" solution. A case in point is the recent passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act. Although the goals of this legislation are certainly laudable, in reality the Act is a largely symbolic measure that will provide very little benefit to most families with children. Only very affluent families can afford to have a parent take 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Rather than assuming that it can mandate family policies for business, government should encourage employers, both through the "bully pulpit" and through example, to negotiate with their employees to determine what practices best suit employees' needs. Government mandates, in contrast, reinforce the view that "government knows best," and reduce flexibility in the marketplace for developing a wide range of family-friendly work options.

Investment by Parents

Success for conservatives in the debate on children's issues will hinge on our conviction that it is not government programs that "pay" for childhoods, but rather it is parents who "pay" for childhoods -- through investing their time and attention in raising their children. Government's primary role in child-rearing should be to help parents find the time and resources to do precisely that. If we fail in this, we will have lost the debate, and lost the chance to put a conservative stamp on the nation's social policies toward children. And we will forever be calculating the cost of childhoods denied.
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Title Annotation:government's program for children
Author:Horn, Wade F.
Publication:Policy Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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