Michael Petit is president of the Every Child Matters Education Fund. He served as commissioner of Maine's Human Services Department and was deputy director of the Child Welfare League of America.
Steady progress was made for decades during the 20th century in health, education and social indicators for children thanks to long-term voter support for federal spending on maternal and child health services, hospitals, medical research, higher education for doctors and nurses and other public health measures. Many of these social gains are now stalled or at risk of being reversed thanks to two myths underpinning the conservative political ideology dominant since the early 1980’s: first, that the federal government can’t do anything right, and second, that taxes are akin to outright thievery.
This ill-conceived ideology accounts for the indifference and near-total silence from conservatives in the administration and Congress about the plight of millions of American children who are without health insurance, are abused and neglected, are left unsupervised every day after school or whose parents are caught in a criminal justice system that is crushing families.
Proven programs and policies that could actually reduce these social ills have come under repeated attack by conservatives ever since the Reagan administration. Reagan’s even more conservative successors, after taking virtual control of the entire federal government in 2001, expanded these attacks directly and indirectly on programs benefiting children. Cuts in federal taxes and reduced state revenues forced many states to cut child care programs, child support enforcement, health care assistance, Head Start and more, ignoring decades of documentation showing that more, not less, federal spending on children was needed. There is now a huge investment gap, producing much worse outcomes for U.S. children and families than found in other rich democracies.
The children harmed most live primarily in the South, where the anti-tax/anti-government ideology has been embraced most enthusiastically. Nowhere is this more evident than in Texas, a classic low-tax, low-service state and home to such conservative ideologues as President and former governor George W. Bush and ex-congressmen Tom DeLay and Dick Armey. Arguably the epicenter of compassionate conservatism, how effective has conservative ideology been in Texas? Nationally, Texas ranks:
- 1st in the percentage of uninsured children
- 1st in food insecurity
- 1st in child abuse deaths
- 1st in the number of incarcerated adults
- 2nd in the percentage of the population that goes hungry
- 2nd in teen pregnancy
- 5th in the overall poverty rate
- 6th in crime
- 47th in income and food stamps benefits for the neediest
- 50th in the percentage of fully-immunized two-year-olds
These poor outcomes in Texas are the direct result of conservative principles. Yet the politicians whose harsh policies produce these outcomes stubbornly insist that more tax breaks and more cuts in programs are good for America’s children.
In a counterpoint to the hollow offerings of compassionate conservatism, a new report by Every Child Matters Education Fund, "Homeland Insecurity ... American Children at Risk," drawing from official data, presents 17 charts related to the well-being of children in the states. They show that nine of the 10 top-ranked states in terms of the best outcomes for children, based on 11 child-related statistical measures, are "blue"—they voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004. These states generally tax themselves at higher rates and make more investments in programs serving children. In these states, more children are insured, more are enrolled in after-school programs and are more likely to be aided if abused. All 10 of the bottom-ranked states in outcomes for children are "red"—they voted for the Republican presidential nominee in 2004. They generally keep taxes lower, but at the expense of children and other vulnerable groups who would benefit from publicly financed health and social programs
Do we know how to reduce child poverty and the other social ills afflicting millions of children and families? We do. The Great Society initiatives of the mid-1960’s, for example, helped knock back child poverty to a record-low 14 percent by 1969.
Conservatives have taken pains to misrepresent the effectiveness of government poverty programs, loudly proclaiming that only the private sector could help the poor while ignoring evidence that the much lower child poverty rates in other countries are the direct result of public, not private, policies. Most telling, government data show that since the latest round of conservative tax and budget dogma was imposed in 2001 household income has dropped, poverty has increased and health coverage has declined even while the administration makes discredited claims that their policies revived the economy.
If we are going to invest in children’s programs, we have to pay for them. Earlier generations of Americans understood that progressive taxes are essential to democracy and its commitment to equal opportunity for all children. The current generation of anti-government, anti-tax conservatives seems determined to prove our ancestors wrong.
Our children deserve much better.
Tuesday, February 06, 2007
Texas Miracles Just Keep On Happening