A Retreat on Children's Well-Being

By Guy V. G. Stevens | The Christian Science Monitor, August 22, 1997 | Go to article overview

A Retreat on Children's Well-Being


Guy V. G. Stevens, The Christian Science Monitor


In today's world of the new welfare law, few choose to remember that for three decades (and for good reason) Congress and successive administrations struggled to establish minimum national standards for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). The reason: to promote equal opportunity. All American children should be guaranteed the minimum benefits necessary for their growth and development.

An irony of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 is that this successor to AFDC has finally succeeded in legislating national standards - regrettably not for minimum children's benefits, but for the mandatory removal of these benefits.

For every parent excluded from federally funded benefits by the 1996 act, one or more children are equally deprived. This includes children of parents whose five-year lifetime eligibility runs out, children of parents who cannot or will not find work in two years, and children of teenage mothers who cannot or will not live at home. It is one thing to punish parents for their transgressions; it is quite another to punish their innocent children. This failure to distinguish between children and their parents not only will adversely affect child poverty and health, but also will signal a major federal retreat from America's bedrock ideal of equal opportunity. American society can ill-afford the cost of such a retreat. The ideal of equal opportunity has long provided the moral justification for our economic system - promising everyone, not equal rewards, but an equal chance to gain available rewards. The term "bedrock ideal" is apt because the principle of equal opportunity is the foundation on which our economic system can be reconciled with our other ideals of equality and democracy. As analyzed by Peter McClellend in his remarkable book, "The American Search for Economic Justice," Americans see their system as an approximation of a fair race, where each competitor gets "to the starting line of the economic race with an equal chance to compete." Equal opportunity for children is now even part of our treaty obligations: In the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the United States recognized "the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child's physical, mental, spiritual, moral, and social development." What is required to achieve equal opportunity has evolved over the course of history, as have many of our other ideals - due process and freedom of speech, for example. One might once have argued, following John Locke and some of the Founding Fathers, that a sufficient condition was the elimination of all government restrictions on who might participate in the economic race. However, this minimalist version of equal opportunity is no longer adequate, either as a description of contemporary beliefs or as a goal. Because of our evolving views on what is required for children to develop to their full potential, we have, as a society, abolished child labor, required free public education, and progressively extended national programs to prevent all kinds of childhood deprivation. …

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