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Blog: Humanist Voices

Picture 13Call it The Great Gap.  It's a phrase designed to capture the wide and in some cases widening spaces between our professed values and what we actually do, the reality behind the flag waving, the actualities of human lives versus how these lives get pushed to the side in competition with money and influence, reactionary political agendas and the distractions of the interminable campaign season.  The Great Gap is our index of hypocrisy.  And across this land there's likely no greater hypocrisy stalking the spaces between word and deed than how America treats its children.  If this is what "American Exceptionalism" looks like, we should hate to see American mediocrity or failure.  Actually, that's exactly what we are seeing.  And, believe it or not, there are political forces in the U.S. that are working to keep it that way.

Let's begin with the OECD's annual Education at a Glance report, a collection of country-level statistics and indicators, which finds that the U.S. comes in at 28th in the world in terms of public support for early childhood education.

Picture 11


There are really three reasons why this matters.  First, it actually costs less over the long term to invest in the well-being of children now.  Not ensuring children have the nutrition, skills and stimulating environments they need for healthy development, means that they are more likely later in life to drop out of school, commit crimes, and become a teen parent, all of which cost society considerably more.  Second, we shouldn't need the financial argument when the moral one should suffice: it is a moral duty of society to ensure the normal and healthy development of all its children.  But, as we shall see a little bit later, not all agree with this ethic.  Third, how we treat our children speaks directly to how we deal with the moral status of future generations, born and unborn.  Every generation of children holds the promise of creating a world that's a comprehensive improvement over the one we've inherited, and the one we're currently building and sustaining.  Do we want future generations to have on average better critical thinking skills than we typically see?  Do we want future generations to be better creative problem solvers?  Do we want future generations to look around and see many more psychologically high-functioning people than we currently do now?  If we had a country that prioritized optimal child development, we could bring about these changes.  At the moment though, we don't have that country.

In July the Children's Defense Fund released its The State of America's Children 2012 Handbook, an invaluable broad-spectrum compendium of statistics and state rankings of variables related to children's well-being.  In it, we read things like,

  • Every 3 hours a child is killed by a firearm.
  • Every 5-and-a-half hours a child is killed by abuse or neglect.
  • Every 8 hours a child commits suicide.
  • Every 21 minutes a baby dies before his or her first birthday.
  • Every 2 minutes a baby is born at low birthweight.
  • Every 47 seconds a child is abused or neglected.
  • Ten states plus the District of Columbia had child poverty rates of 25% or higher in 2010.
  • Black and Hispanic children are far more likel to be poor than White children.

Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children's Defense Fund writes, "Millions of children are living hopeless, poverty- and violence-stricken lives in the war zones of our cities... Homeless shelters, child hunger, and child suffering have become normalized in the richest nation on earth."

Particularly appalling is the level of violence directed against children in America.  According to the BBC, "Sixty-six children under the age of 15 die from physical abuse or neglect every week in the industrialized world.  Twenty-seven of those die in the US - the highest number of any other country."

Picture 12


America's gun culture, its high level of poverty and violence relative to other countries, and more, all contribute to this problem.  But we won't get down to the baseboards of America's betrayal of children until we understand a bit of history.


Optimal Child Development? Not Here, Says the "Family Values" Crowd

After many decades of academic struggle to conceptualize and research the problem of child abuse and neglect in the US, we reached a high water mark in 1971 with the creation of the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971.  What made the bill unique was not its focus on addressing childhood abuse and neglect, but its focus on "all aspects of child development."[1]  Right-wing fears of "socialism", feminism, as well as anti-government sentiment, led to the child development component of the bill being stripped out, leaving the focus only on abuse and neglect.  Parents were left to their own devices in finding childcare, placing additional stress on parents and inviting the very problems of abuse the Act was designed to address, and children needing psychotherapy were out of luck.

Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, writes,

"In the early 70s, some social workers recognized that progressive policies aimed at promoting child welfare were being abandoned, and that this trend was connected to the way concern for children was narrowing down to concern for child abuse.  Government programs began to focus on parents' rights rather than children's developmental needs.  President Nixon was changing the focus of all previous White House Conferences on Children to a conservative, "family values" agenda that stressed noninterference from government agencies."

If human development is the moral foundation for human rights, Nixon and his conservative supporters ensured that the U.S. wouldn't be participating in such a threatening transformation of the national anti-child ethos.

We missed a rare historical opportunity then to start ensuring a strong start in life for every child.  According to Young-Bruehl, "The view now appears to be that societal stability rather than the development of a child's individual potential is of prime importance.  There is a fiscal and ideological retreat from what might have been a century centered on children."

A decade later, riding the mounting wave of New Right politics in America, Ronald Reagan became President, and famously declared that government is the problem, not the solution.  Young-Bruehl, again,

"...during the eight years of Ronald Reagan's presidency the legislative concern for America's "endangered children" weakened, and their situation became progressively worse.  Following Reagan's lead, Congress began a process of deregulating the manufacturing and service industries--in effect, subsidizing corporations and international consortiums engaged in the kind of capitalism that came to be known as globalization.  Child labor and child sexual trafficking increased globally, as did the child poverty rate everywhere except in the more social-democratic states of Western Europe and the British Commonwealth."


The Convention on the Rights of the Child - A New Hope

Advocates for children later placed their hope in the UN's 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which if ratified by a government legally required it to take appropriate measures to fulfill the Convention's obligations to children's human rights, well-being and development.  The Convention is includes statements like,

Article 12:

"1. States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child."

Article 13:

"1. The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child's choice."

Article 14:

"1. States Parties shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion."

Article 29:

"1. States Parties agree that the education of the child shall be directed to:

(a) The development of the child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential;

(b) The development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and for the principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations;"

As of this date, only Somalia and the United States have not ratified the CRC.

Students of American politics are not unclear as to why the CRC hasn't been ratified.  To many religious and political conservatives the CRC contains frightening portents of outside authority threatening parental rights, meddling government rules and regulations coercing parents into conformity with a "social engineering" agenda they had no say in.  Despite the fact that "...America lags behind the rest of the international community in its care for children.  U.S. laws and policies do not meet children's developmental needs or defend their rights, and the United States has yet to support the 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child or ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child,"[2] opposition to the CRC in the U.S. persists.


Children Are Our Future - Except When We Have to Pay for It

If it's American "sovereignty" that worries many conservatives, and if they share the goals of optimal child development, we'd see them defending legislation that reflected a pro-child agenda.  However, as we saw above with the fate of the Comprehensive Child Development Act, that wasn't the case then.  And it's not the case now.

According to a report from First Focus, a children's advocacy group, "The U.S. House of Representatives passed a budget proposal in May that would cut billions from children’s health, child care, child anti-poverty investments, child nutrition, and child abuse and neglect prevention and response."

Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said that the bill is designed to “target the most vulnerable in our society for the deepest cuts.” "Cuts to programs that improve our schools and combat child abuse, substance abuse, elder abuse, mental health issues, teen pregnancy and domestic violence are all devastating."

The cuts to programs defending children alone are, from a social and fiscal cost standpoint, counterproductive.  According to the American Humane Association in its review of the 2012 budget,

"Our failure to prevent the abuse and neglect of children from occurring in the first place costs American taxpayers over $103 billion per year.[3] Average caseloads for child protection workers are double the recommended caseload. As such, at current funding levels, CPS is unable to serve close to half of the abused and neglected children in their caseloads. Preventing child abuse is cost effective. A GAO study of child abuse prevention programs found “total federal costs of providing prevention programs for low-income populations were nearly offset after four years.”[4] There should be a greater balance between investments in child maltreatment prevention and investments made after a child has been separated from their family."

It's not difficult to imagine that if the U.S. had passed the CRC, that such budgetary brutality would be considerably more difficult.  Of course, that's precisely the point. Political conservatives desire as few legal encumbrances as possible to continue their program of maximizing the shift of the country's wealth into the hands of the already wealthy. The needs of children are one of the obstacles to that.  The CRC might help establish a legal and policy bulwark of children's human rights that those hostile or indifferent to children's rights would find more difficult to circumvent.


Opposition to Children's Human Rights Education in the U.S.

Beyond America's dysfunctional systems for supporting children there's the fact that we have a relatively weak human rights culture in the U.S.  One aspect of this problem is the relative absence in U.S. schools of a fully developed, let alone minimal, human rights curriculum.

"...human rights education has yet to be meaningfully incorporated into the K-12 curriculum in the United States, perhaps because of the unsettling issues related to the United States' refusal to ratify all the major human rights treaties or to implement fully the treaty commitments the United States has assumed."[5]

It's an elementary observation that if we have a citizenry that's essentially illiterate when it comes to human rights, it will be much more difficult to insist on budgetary priorities that reflect human rights. It will also make it more difficult for children to advocate for their own rights.

Human rights scholar and educator Joyce Apsel notes that when it comes to human rights literacy, indeed, Americans aren't doing very well:

"My experiences conducting workshops with children and adolescents of different ages and backgrounds across the United States since 1996 is that very few students, teachers, or parents know the content of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (a 1997 survey by Human Rights USA found that 93 percent of people in the United States had never heard of the declaration.), that even fewer know of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and that the United States and Somalia are the only two states not to have ratified it.  Since World War II, international covenants have been drafted on economic, social, and cultural rights, as well as civil and political ones.  Further, a range of international and regional protocols and conventions address elimination of genocide, torture, and all forms of racial and gender discrimination.  Additional conventions have acknowledged the special need to guarantee the rights of vulnerable groups, such as children, women, refugees, and indigenous people.  These important developments in human rights norms are largely ignored in classrooms across the country.  In workshops, I have found that when students are asked what type of rights they think they have, initially there is often silence or puzzlement; then some students will talk about freedom of the press and freedom of expression and refer to U.S. history."

As with previous efforts to elevate the status of children's human rights to a national priority, Apsel notes that we (once again) run into familiar resistance:

"Teaching curriculum on human rights is challenging and often promotes questioning of the status quo and making students aware of the range of national and international rights they possess as human beings... However, the fact is that human rights and peace education are often labeled "too Left" or "too critical" of conditions or foreign policy in the United States, and teachers are reluctant to teach subjects that may offend parents or administrators and undermine their jobs.  This self-censorship and hostile environment are major obstacles to human rights curriculum."[6]

Advocates of children's rights and human rights in general should find this highly problematic.  What shall we do?


The Road Ahead

It seems self-evident that in order to better protect the right's of children in the U.S., we need to build a much stronger human rights culture.  We also need to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child and implement its provisions in law and policy. 

It's also self-evident that if we're to advance the flourishing of all children in the U.S. and around the world, we must reject the libertarian and conservative program of cutting government spending on children.  It's difficult to see how we can advance children's flourishing by de-funding programs they depend on.  In fact, frankly, it's irrational.[7]

If organized humanism can't generate sufficient internal resources to effect change, and certainly that prospect is dim at this point, we should join a movement.  Marian Wright Edelman writes,

"A transforming nonviolent movement is needed to create a just America. It must start in our homes, communities, parent and civic associations, and faith congregations across the nation. It will not come from Washington or state capitols or politicians. Every single person can and must make a difference if our voiceless, voteless children are to be prepared to lead America forward. Now is the time to close our action and courage gaps, reclaim our nation’s ideals of freedom and justice, and ensure every child the chance to survive and thrive."

For additional readings on children's human rights, please visit here.

-Eric Snyder


[1] Young-Bruehl, Elizabeth. (2012). Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children. Yale University Press, New Haven.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Wang, C & Holton, J. (2008). Total estimated cost of child abuse and neglect in the United States: Statistical evidence. Chicago, IL: Prevent Child Abuse America.

[4] U.S. Government Accountability Office (1992). Child Abuse: Prevention Programs Need Greater Emphasis: Washington, DC.

[5] Ensalaco, M. & Majka, L. (Eds.). (2005). Children's Human Rights: Progress and Challenges for Children Worldwide. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Lanham Maryland.

[6] Ibid.

 [7] In "A Humanist Theory of Ethics: Inference to the Best Action" (43-53), in Toward a New Political Humanism (2004), Theodore Schuck argues that just as we can make an "inference to the best explanation" to decide among competing hypotheses, we can us an analogous procedure in moral questions, an "inference to the best action." See this book chapter for details. 

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