Rutledge: Short-sighted U.S. failing its children

Originally from Oregon, guest writer Steve Rutledge moved to the East Coast to earn degrees in Latin, Greek and history at the University of Massachusetts, then a doctorate in classics at Brown University. After 17 years in the Classics Department at the University of Maryland, he took early retirement in 2012 and returned home. He is now serving as an adjunct professor at Linfield, specializing in ancient history and languages. He has published three books and numerous articles on early Roman history and literature.

This is the time of year when television stations begin to run the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, told in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

Most people probably wouldn’t want to be identified with Scrooge. However, collectively, our country seems to have embraced his cynical and short-sighted ethos — one that chooses money and short-term economic gain over basic humanity and simple, sound planning.

In the past several months, a number of public research studies have cast our country’s short-sightedness into vivid relief. A study by The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and Elizabeth Davis and Aaron Sojourner of the Hamilton Project told many of us what we already knew: The U.S. is exceptional in how little it invests in its young children.

Annual public spending on early childhood care per child averages about $500 in the U.S. It averages more than $8,000 in Australia, $18,000 in Germany and $23,000 in Denmark, where the happiness index, perhaps not coincidentally, far exceeds ours.

Programs geared toward children in other countries pay for publicly funded preschool, among other things. That proves vital for the economy, as parents have difficulty working without it. These programs also give children a leg up in terms of their educational development.

The U.S. is also exceptional in terms of its lack of paid family leave. Data from the World Policy Analysis Center at the UCLA School of Public Health includes a map of paid family leave for mothers of newborns throughout the world. It’s devastating and humiliating for the U.S.

Russia, India, Japan, Canada and most European countries provide at least six months of paid family leave and some well over a year. And all but India also give fathers of newborns generous family leave time.

The only ones with whom we keep company, with a mandated family leave of zero weeks, are Suriname and Papua New Guinea. Even the minuscule South African nation of Eswatini provides two weeks paid leave.

Another map features huge patches of dark green across the globe, depicting countries providing 24 or more weeks of paid leave for health issues. Amid that sea of green, the U.S., Australia, India and some holdouts in the African interior stand out in bright orange, indicating they provide none.

None of this — not lack of investment in childhood development, not lack of parental leave for newborns, not lack of paid sick leave — is free of costs. Costs are incurred, for example, when others take time off to care for sick family members, resulting in lost income and productivity.

That we have added these unnecessary financial and familial burdens to illness has implications for all of us.

A Journal of the American Medical Association study published late last year, surveying health outcomes for a variety of conditions, from infant mortality to colon cancer. It revealed that while the highest 5% of income earners in this country had better-than-average health outcomes for the U.S., even members of our economic elite lagged behind health outcome averages for other developed countries.

Children are particularly vulnerable to bad outcomes.

I recall years ago a lecture by a Harvard pediatrician at a small farms conference in Corvallis. He spoke of the expense this country incurs when it fails to extend adequate food assistance to needy families, most of which include young children.

Imagine, she said, how you feel around 11 a.m. when your blood sugar drops and you get hungry for lunch. Now imagine a child with a developing brain and body who goes all day without because the family cannot afford food.

She documented the serious developmental impacts of improper care, even for a brief time.

She said the damage it inflicts is permanent, including lifelong health issues, poor education and employment prospects, and behavioral and mental health issues. The result is sidetracking potentially productive adults into homelessness, prison and addiction. Such damaged souls become a societal expense rather than contribution.

A small investment in nutritional subsidies to their families can help prevent hundreds of thousands of dollars of state expenditure per individual down the road.

Those who pose as fiscal conservatives, and thus advocate cutting such programs, are in fact creating a much greater economic and human cost for their community. While private charities do their part, their contribution is minuscule when compared to that of state programs.  

We hear a great deal in our political discourse about freedom, as though someone somehow decided this was the ultimate value. But we hear almost nothing about obligations, common good, or well-being.

What does freedom matter without well-being, health, or a future for one’s children? When does espousing the virtues of hardscrabble work morph instead into a form of cruelty, marked by imposition of a worthless life of drudgery and wage servitude for too many of us?

Mean-spiritedness is not the same as frugality and cruelty is not the same as strength, though many willfully confuse both.

We have embraced a worldview that allowed a president to exploit the national trauma of 9/11 to take us into wasteful, destructive and ultimately useless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to spend $8.5 trillion serving only to enrich arms manufacturers and finance industry.

But to invest $3.5 trillion in our citizens’ well-being? That is politically impossible.

I will not attempt to analyze why we insist on such profound national mismanagement, bordering on abuse. I will not attempt to explain the sheer folly of this failure to better plan for our future and that of our children. I will simply end with Dickens.

At the end of his visit, the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals two demonic spirits to Scrooge that hide within his robes. The ghost tells Scrooge:

“This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both ... but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom ... Deny it! ... Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”


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