Toward a Family-Friendly America
When the Bough Breaks
By Sylvia Ann Hewlett
Review Author: Celia Wolf-Devine
Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist, here sounds a timely alarm about America’s increasing neglect of its children and the costs of this neglect. She begins by documenting the magnitude of the problem, providing both individual case histories (usually told in the child’s own words) and an impressive set of statistics to document her claims. Fifty percent of the current generation of children suffer from the effects of parental divorce, and half of those lose contact with their fathers in the wake of divorce. A fifth of our children are growing up in families with incomes below the poverty level, teen suicide has tripled since 1960, eleven percent of all births in the U.S. are drug exposed, and over a quarter of all students who enter high school fail to graduate. She makes it very clear that these problems are not just confined to ghetto children or racial minorities, but that white middle-class children are also suffering.
She finds one source of these problems in the private choices we make to seek our own freedom and self-fulfillment, often at the expense of the delicate tissue of communal and family life. The other source of the problems, she says, lies in the decisions we have made collectively about the allocation of resources. While much has been done to aid the elderly, and the costs of caring for them have been largely socialized, less and less has been done for children (a child under six is now twice as likely as a person over 65 to live in poverty), and parents are left to bear all the costs of raising their children alone. Parents do not directly receive the benefits of these costs in the way they used to in pre-capitalist societies.
The most distinctive thing about Hewlett’s approach is her attempt to show that morality and self-interest converge. We cannot, she says, compete in the international economy if we continue to squander our human resources as we are now doing by neglecting the well-being of our children. Investing in things like prenatal care and special preschool programs such as Head Start are far more cost effective than paying to provide intensive care for premature babies or to keep people in prison or on welfare. Businesses are facing a serious skills shortage among American workers; jobs are requiring higher and higher skill levels at a time when academic performance is declining badly, and therefore large numbers of young people are virtually unemployable. The vast majority of new entrants into the work force in the near future will be women and minorities. Families where both spouses work are the norm rather than the exception, and a work place structured to meet the needs of men who had wives at home to care for the children must be changed to meet the needs of a different kind of work force. Businesses wishing to reduce absenteeism and employee turnover and to generate strong loyalty among their workers would do well to institute changes which make life easier for working parents with children, such as flexible hours and job sharing. Hewlett admits, however, that the interests of the corporation and those of the child do not dovetail completely, and that some policies (such as out-of-home care for sick children) may be good for the company but bad for the child who would rather stay home when ill.
Ultimately, she argues, the government must be involved. The advanced industrial countries of Europe and Asia tend to regard children as an important community resource and therefore see families as deserving the support of the whole community. All of them have government policies more supportive of the well-being of children and families than we do, and although we would have to pick and choose among these and adapt them to differing conditions in the U.S. (which is a more diverse society), we could learn a lot from the experience of these countries.
Getting people to care about children is closely connected with getting them to care about the future of our society, and individual suffering children are easier to connect with emotionally than the state of our society after we are dead. However, our lack of consensus about the good life is likely to lead to battles about what we want our children to become. But there is at least some common ground, and there are ways of building enough flexibility into our programs to accommodate differences in parental values.
One weakness of the book is that Hewlett has a tendency to come across as having a bit of an animus against the elderly for grabbing too much for themselves. Our society increasingly lacks any sense of the common good, and this is more than just a result of individual selfishness. In the absence of a shared vision of what the good society would be and a commitment to shared purposes flowing from it, societies increasingly operate on the squeaky-wheel principle, thus creating an atmosphere in which one has to squeak in order to have one’s needs met.
We still need to ask by what criteria we should adjudicate between the needs of the elderly and the needs of children. Hewlett gives us an uneasy mixture of appeals to our self-interest and vaguely religious justifications for caring for children — she cites 1 Corinthians 13 and urges us to see the face of God in neglected children. (She is a Unitarian and the founder of a volunteer organization which helps poor children in New York.) But pure self-interest will not work, since many of those asked to sacrifice now will probably not be the beneficiaries of their sacrifices, and thus we are back to the intransigent problem of the common good. And one can equally well see the face of God in the elderly or anyone else for that matter.
This would be a good book to give to those who make policies for corporations, since Hewlett provides many descriptions of successful programs undertaken by businesses to develop more family-friendly policies and to institute programs that reach out to disadvantaged young people. It would also be useful for politicians. She brings home the seriousness of the current situation, suggests that saving America’s children is a program that would have broad political appeal, and provides constructive suggestions for how to do it without raising taxes.
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