Failing Forward

NYTimes.com – 2011/08/27/opinion
Published: August 26, 2011.   By Charles M. Blow, Op-Ed Columnist

Sometimes I push back on my heels, look at this country and wonder aloud: “What on earth are we doing?”

We have a growing crisis among the nation’s children, yet our policies ignore that reality at best and exacerbate it at worst.

According to a report issued this week by the Guttmacher Institute, the unintended pregnancy rate among poor women has jumped 50 percent since 1994, yet a July report from the institute points out that politicians are setting records passing laws to restrict abortion.

It said: “The 80 abortion restrictions enacted this year are more than double the previous record of 34 abortion restrictions enacted in 2005 — and more than triple the 23 enacted in 2010.”

Add to this the assault by conservatives on Planned Parenthood, and what are we saying?

This is what we’re saying: actions have consequences. If you didn’t want a child, you shouldn’t have had sex. You must be punished by becoming a parent even if you know that you are not willing or able to be one.

This is insane.

Even if you follow a primitive religious concept of punishment for sex, as many on the right seem to do, you must at some point acknowledge that it is the child, not the parent, who will be punished most by our current policies that increasingly advocate for “unborn children” but fall silent for those outside the womb.

This is not how a rational society operates.

Aside from the raft of negative outcomes associated with unintended pregnancies, there are a host of other indicators that suggest a perilous world for the nation’s children.

A report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation last week found that “the official child poverty rate, which is a conservative measure of economic hardship, increased 18 percent between 2000 and 2009.”

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the number of children facingfood insecurity in 2009 soared to nearly one in four.

And ABC News pointed out this week that a breathtaking 49 percent of all children born in this country are born to families who receive food supplements from the federal Women, Infants and Children assistance program.

As the World Bank points out, “undernutrition” in young children has been linked to delayed growth and motor development, lower I.Q.’s, behavioral problems and decreased attention, deficient learning and lower educational achievement.

Yet we wonder why our children’s educational outcomes are so low when compared with other wealthy nations.

We even have the nerve to begrudge teachers for not being able to squeeze success out of children primed for failure.

It should come as no surprise that a C.D.C. report this month found a continued rise in the percentage of children being diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or that the country has continued its course of mass incarceration.

The prison population in the United States has nearly quadrupled over the last 25 years.

In fact, we have the highest incarceration rate of any Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development country.

This isn’t only a moral outrage; it’s also budgetary lunacy. As a report released last month by the Children’s Defense Fund pointed out, “the U.S. spends almost two-and-a-half times as much per prisoner as per public school pupil.”

We simply can’t keep turning to pills and prisons to solve issues of poverty and poor parenting. This is unhealthy, unsustainable and unwise.

We have to do a better, more focused job of teaching sex education and providing contraceptive options (kudos here to the administration for moving this month to require insurance companies to provide birth control services to women at no extra cost).

We have to remove the stigma and judgment around sex. Sex isn’t bad or unnatural. It’s one of the most natural things that we do. It just needs to be safe and responsible.

We also have to preserve women’s birth options should they become pregnant, including the option not to give birth.

And, finally, for all the children who are born, we must make a valiant effort to give each and every one of them a fighting chance, which includes food and medicine when their parents can’t provide it. We must do this not as a boon or crutch to the parent, but as a selfish investment in the future of this great society.

They need our help now more than ever because the current economic stress may take some time to overcome.

As an updated Budget and Economic Outlook report issued by the Congressional Budget Office this week points out, the unemployment rate is expected to stay above 8 percent until the middle of the decade.

Now is when we need government to step up and be smart.

This is exactly the wrong time to do what the Republicans would have us do.

In their 2012 budget, they propose cutting nutrition programs as part of austerity measures so that we don’t leave our children saddled with debt.

Meanwhile, they completely ignore the fact that those cuts could leave even more children saddled with physical or developmental problems.

They want to hold the line on tax breaks for the wealthy, not paying attention to the fact that our growing income inequality, which could be reversed, continues to foster developmental inequality, which is almost impossible to reverse.

We have to start this conversation from a different point.

We must ask: “What kind of society do we want to build, and what kinds of workers, soldiers and citizens should populate that society?”

If we want that society to be prosperous and safe and filled with healthy, well-educated and well-adjusted people, then the policy directions become clear.

They are almost the exact opposite of what we are doing.

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Correction: August 29, 2011:
An earlier version of this column misstated the findings of a report by the Guttmacher Institute about the rate of unintended pregnancies. The 50 percent increase since 1994 was among poor women, not all women.

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