U.S. overlooks the welfare of its children

Scott Laderman

In a few weeks – it might be as soon as several days – I will become a father. Undoubtedly this will be the happiest moment of my life. Learning that my wife was pregnant, watching her tummy grow, seeing and feeling the baby’s movement inside her: I have never experienced anything quite like it. Nevertheless, these are troubling times to be bringing a new life into the world.

When my daughter is born, my wife and I will somehow have to come up with the money necessary to purchase her health insurance. Unlike most industrialized nations, the United States does not guarantee the right to medical care enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If we lived a few hundred miles to the north, this would not be an issue. But here in the United States, where health services are considered a commodity subject to orthodox “market” principles, more than 40 million people lack the insurance needed to receive regular care. I am determined that my daughter not join their ranks.

Her predicament will not be aided by the fact that, like most Americans, my wife and I do not enjoy paid maternity leave. This means we will be losing much of our income when the baby is born. And for my wife, she might not have a job to which to return. As a Minneapolis public school teacher, she, like many others, is about to be pink-slipped. It is possible she will be hired again for the coming academic year, but with the district facing substantial budget cuts, this is by no means certain.

At least if she’s unemployed we need not worry about child care. But adequate food, clothing, medicine? Although we are in a much better position than many others, we will still have to make numerous sacrifices to pay for these essentials. In the event that my wife is rehired, we will somehow have to conjure up hundreds of additional dollars every month to ensure that our baby receives safe and reliable care while we work. This is a concern to many Minnesotans, as state legislators – many of them the same charlatans preaching “family values” – recently voted to slash nearly $80 million in public child-care spending, affecting more than 27,000 families. It seems that raising the relatively low taxes of those Minnesotans making hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars annually is “class warfare,” while cutting necessary services to those earning thousands or tens of thousands of dollars is, well, merely an unfortunate accession to economic “reality.”

I hope that when our daughter is old enough to begin school, the district will finally have begun receiving the money it deserves. But I doubt it. She might be forced to take classes in buildings in dire need of repair, with too many students to receive sufficient personal attention, and with teachers forced to purchase supplies and curricular materials out of their own pockets. My wife is well familiar with all of these, especially the last. And if national trends serve as any indication, we might have to begin paying for the bus that takes our daughter to school. So while I will be paying more to commute to campus – metropolitan bus fares will soon be rising – and perhaps paying for our daughter to be driven to her classes, the good folks living in the suburbs can rest assured that highways and new roads will continue to be fully funded.

If I sound bitter, I am. What sort of society places such a low premium on the health, education and well-being of its children? The United States just spent tens of billions of dollars to wage an illegal war against Iraq, and it will be spending tens of billions more to sustain the country’s occupation. Over and above this amount, the White House has requested more than $399 billion for the military in fiscal year 2004, much of which will be funneled into profits for large private corporations. This military allocation accounts for more than half of all discretionary spending.

As if that weren’t bad enough, negotiations are ongoing between Congress and the White House about how many hundreds of billions of dollars to dispense to the nation’s richest people under the euphemism of “tax relief.” Already the wealthiest 1 percent of U.S. households controls approximately 38 percent of all national wealth; by way of contrast, the bottom 80 percent of households controls only 17 percent. Yet in a remarkable feat of indoctrination, countless Americans have taken to arguing that tax cuts overwhelmingly favoring the richest people are, in fact, in the interests of most of us.

Such is the world into which my child will be born. It is harrowing, to say the least. But in addition to bitterness, I have hope.

To be sure, my daughter will hail from a country with precious political freedoms. She will have the right – should she choose to exercise it – to speak her mind, to organize for social change, and to challenge those many satraps masquerading as public servants. My daughter, in other words, will have the freedom to fight like hell for what we too often neglect – our collective human dignity. For that I am grateful.

Scott Laderman’s biweekly columns usually appear alternate Tuesdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]

Send letters to the editor to [email protected]