Frequent discussions on this board and others are concerned with the issues surrounding the provision of benefits to children of indigent and working poor families. Our current system allows, for those who qualify, to receive benefits in order to provide for their children who are under the age of 18 years. This includes Food Stamps, healthcare, daycare, school lunches, cash stipends and school choice vouchers; just to mention a few. Providing benefits falls directly on the shoulders of the taxpayer; and, the social services entitlement programs takes a big chunk of both the state and federal budgets.
Whether politically conservative or liberal, there is a strong societal value and commitment to the welfare and wellbeing of the nation’s children. So important is this value, that it has become the basis for a large number of policies, at all levels of government, to assure the future of our nation. Most developed nations share this value and commitment, some more and some less, but all understand the value to the future.
I could go into a long discussion how this value and commitment evolved out of our basic survival needs, but that is not really the focus of this piece. What is important is that society has placed a standard of legislated expectations on the members of society with regards to children and it, the government, is willing to implement and support those expectations, even with force if necessary.
The status of children and how we perceive them has changed over time and governmental policy reflects those changes. It wasn’t too long ago, maybe a little over a century, that children were looked upon as primarily economic production units to help sustain the welfare and health of the family. In many developing societies they are still viewed in this manner. A good example of this is the American family farm of a century ago where large families were desired to provide labor to work the farm.
In addition to their economic benefit; society mostly viewed children as chattel, the property of their parents, primarily the father. Under this system, it was not uncommon for children to be abused (by today’s standards), neglected, indentured or worse. Children had no rights under the law and parents were able to do just about anything in regards to their offspring without interference from the law or society. However, toward the end of the 19th century this view of children began to change.
As a side note: I find it interesting that the ASPCA was created and protected animals long before any legislation was passed for the protection of children.
Although the murder of children has always been pretty well prohibited, little else was regulated, including physical and emotional discipline. However, beginning late in the 19th century more and more parental rights were modified to meet the changing views that society was adopting concerning the welfare of children and the needs of society. This is especially evident in times of economic distress; children were always the first to be negatively affected with changes in the economy and this remains the case even today. Prior to the change of view of children; children were used in the woolen and cotton mills of New England, the coal mines of Appalachia, and any other area where unskilled labor was required that didn’t require brute strength or size.
As the late 19th century Progressive Movement gained momentum, the plight of children soon became the centerpiece of national attention. Initially, it was focused on child labor and universal education; but as the 20th century unfolded more and more attention was given to the nature and role of children. The progressive legislation of the 1930s finally coalesced into our current system and view of child welfare.
There had been, beginning in Elizabethan England, the debate over the “deserving poor” verses the “undeserving poor." By the “Great Depression” it was generally recognized that the deserving poor was largely limited to widows and orphans. With the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935 making widows and orphans eligible for government provided benefits; alleviated the plight of widows and orphans. However, children in poverty due to other reasons, continued to be an issue of social concern.
Efforts to solve the problem of children in poverty became focused on providing not for the family directly, but for the children themselves. Legislation through the 1970s was designed and implemented to primarily break the poverty cycle and move impoverished children into the working and middle classes, while maintaining the nuclear family unit. The assumption was that it was to the benefit of children to remain in their family of birth rather than ship them off to industrial type warehouses, called orphanages or work farms and work houses. The AFDC system worked on the premise that the child was best served by a stay at home mother until the child was enrolled into a full day school. The system adopted the premise; that the family was eligible for full AFDC benefits until the child achieved the age of six years.
A contrary social economic movement was occurring parallel to the child welfare movement. The entry of women into the full time workforce began to change the assumptions concerning the socially accepted premise of the value of stay at home moms and its impact on children.
During the Carter administration a change was made to the AFDC eligibility requirements. The policy changed the makeup of the family in poverty by requiring any adult, primarily the father, in the household, other than the mother or other primary care parent, to be gainfully employed. By the father working, often for minimum wage or in an unstable employment market, the loss of benefits could not be made up by the employment alone. If the employment able unemployed adult remained in the household, the family would lose all government benefit, thus putting all the children in the family at risk. The solution was for the male parent to move out of the household. The change in policy contributed to an adaptation by the family, whereas the family in poverty became a single parent, woman headed matriarchal unit. Hence, giving birth to the stereotypical “welfare queen”.
The conservatives of the Reagan era began using the plight of the AFDC families and perceived notion that there weren’t any legitimate reasons for women with children to be on assistance. This sentiment was further reinforced by the attitudes concerning women working outside of the home instead of being a stay at home parent. By the mid 1990s, AFDC as we know it had ended and work and term requirements were added to the welfare recipients. As we approach two decades since the change, it has yet proven to result in the goals desired. If anything it has proven to create many more problems than it solved. But, what does this have to do with children?
As the Progressive Movement forged into the 20th century, society took more and more control of how children were raised and the expectations of parental roles. Much of the rationale for the changes were based on discovers found in the emerging social sciences of psychology and sociology. Another important influence was education and learning theory. Based on the new information, government bodies began passing new legislation putting limits on parental control and demands of proper care and treatment of children. This was supported by both conservatives and liberals with the common denominator being the welfare of children, which would lead to a better society.
Looking at the relationship between society, parents and children; it doesn’t take long to discover that parents have been reassigned to the role as caretakers of their children, with society becoming the ultimate super parent. It is no more apparent than children of divorce, children found to have been abused or neglected, and those receiving government benefits. The parents of these children have been mandated by the government in how they care for their children. Quite simply, children have become direct wards of the state, with society as the direct guarantor of children’s welfare. As long as a parent is able to provide for their children and meet societal expectations, the government pretty much stays out of the relationship between parent and child. However, step outside of the societal expectations, a parent can run the risk of losing parental rights as well as their children.
Now we have come to the dilemma of how do you take care of children without taking care of the caregiver too. This is where there arises a major difference between the political right and the political left. The political right wants to support the children without supporting the caregiver. The political left maintains that you can’t provide for the children without also providing for the caretaker/parent. So far the political right hasn’t come up with anything to satisfy both demands.
If we as a society wish to assure the quality of life of our children and maintain resources to achieve proper growth and development, then we must accept the fact that we will have to support the caretaker also.