By Lawrence D. Blum, M.D. and Leon Hoffman, M.D.
Our children and our future are at stake in today's Congressional budget wars. The current temporary government funding bill passed by Congress will soon expire, and the battle will resume with the House pursuing a budget that will make devastating cuts to programs for children. Even programs that save the government money are threatened. That our leaders can propose this, with so little public outcry, requires explanation. We suggest that there are psychological reasons for this state of affairs.
The United States was born in our War of Independence and weaned on the Frontier spirit. Personal independence and self-reliance are the paramount virtues of American culture. As psychoanalysts, we know that relationships with other people are important foundations of physical and emotional health. Yet, many Americans believe that attaining personal freedom is best accomplished by sacrificing relationships; and many suggest that such an approach to life is the recipe that we should all follow. This radical individualism has both personal and serious cultural side-effects. One of those side effects, we propose, is a societal hostility toward, and neglect of, our children.
All of us, children and adults, have a need to be taken care of, and to take care of, other people. This powerful human need is the basis of much charitable and communal activity. Yet many Americans strive for radical personal autonomy, which can only be maintained by a posture of denial of their own real inter-personal needs and by denying any inclination to take care of others. Those who obviously need the most care, of course, are our children, our sick, and our poor. People in obvious need make us uncomfortable by challenging our idealized image of perfect self-sufficiency. To alleviate this discomfort we as a society then tend to ignore them.
Consistent with this idealization of self-sufficiency and intolerance of need, United States cares less for its children than any other developed country. We are last in leave from work for new parents, we lag in support for early childhood education, and twenty-eight nations now have lower rates of infant mortality than we do. The needs of our children have been buried in our drive for personal independence.
Although our children remain a low priority in our social hierarchy, it is no mystery what we should do for them. Research has confirmed what common sense tells us. We have evidence that children who are fed do better than those who are hungry. We know that dollars spent on early child care and education save many more dollars from being spent on special education and the criminal justice system. We have increasing evidence that hitting children, corporal punishment, which is now illegal in many other countries, contributes to behavior problems, encourages children toward violence, and can even lower intelligence. We know that people with insurance stay healthier than those without, and that healthy children do better than sick children.
Even though founding father Ben Franklin reportedly said "We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately" we have gone so overboard with "independencism" that any collective good is now regarded by many as objectionably socialist. Many proposed budget cuts are clearly not about saving money. The ideological ax threatens programs such as Headstart and WIC (Women Infants & Children), which for every dollar invested demonstrably save taxpayers many dollars elsewhere.
Why is there so little public outcry, no "March for Children"? Maybe the same psychology is at work. Perhaps children, like adults, should be able to take care of themselves; like John Henry of American myth, they should be born big, strong, and independent. They shouldn't need help. Part of the appeal of the small government movement is that when government is small enough there will be no communal endeavor, no objectionable help for anyone. It may be that poor and helpless adults also identify with the power elite, those who are clearly not needy, thus inhibiting them from "marching" for their own interests and their children's interests.
First Lady Michelle Obama's campaign against childhood obesity is commendable, but who will champion the efforts to help children be safe, loved, cared for, fed, and educated in the first place? Children are not self-sufficient, and childhood deprivation does not build character; it leads to misery and anger. As a society we need to temper our radical individualism, and nurture all of our care-giving impulses, to make sure our children get the foundation they need, and that they, and we, can look forward to a future of opportunity instead of deprivation.