Innocence Lost

Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Innocence Lost


In November 1999, a Michigan jury tried a 13-year-old boy as an adult and found him guilty of murder for a crime he committed at age 11. This decision raises philosophical questions Americans are struggling to answer. What is childhood? Has a culture of violence and poverty effectively rendered the age of innocence obsolete?

The Children's Defense Fund finds that the number of children living in extreme poverty rose by nearly half a million in the year following passage of the 1996 federal welfare law, CDF's Arloc Sherman says. This figure is higher than official estimates, primarily because government statistics do not account for noncash benefits--such as food stamps and tax breaks--that the working poor may lose when they switch from welfare to work. Moreover, research shows that poverty alone--not moral turpitude, single parenthood, birth out of wedlock, or teen maternity--accounts for irreversible physical and emotional harm to children. To replace the safety net of the old welfare system, children need new ladders our of poverty, at the local, state, and federal levels.

Recent shootings in middle-class communities prove that youth crime is not necessarily an offshoot of poverty. However, exposure to what James Garbarino calls "social toxicity"--a poisonous environment of community or family violence and the availability of guns and drugs--predisposes boys to crime, much as exposure to allergens causes serious asthmatic episodes in susceptible individuals. Patterns of aggression in boys are deeply ingrained by age 8. Early intervention for troubled youth and a positive spiritual environment for all youth are therefore crucial.

As the nature of family continues to shift and more women enter the workforce, working parents will need the assurance that their children have quality child care during work hours. Kenneth Jaffe, with the International Child Resource Institute, says the United States needs a clear national agenda to support adequate child-care centers. Work-related child care is cost effective, as absenteeism declines and worker productivity increases. In addition, models for innovative, affordable child-care systems can be found outside U.S. borders. In the small city of Quito, Ecuador, for example, a U. …

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