December 2, 2012

Motherlode: Nation owes parents for nurturing next work force

By KJ DELL'ANTONIA

On the Economix blog, Nancy Folbre has another take on our cost-benefit analysis of child-rearing, one that the parents among us, and their supporters, will love. In "Of Parents, Puppies and Robots," she writes:

Capitalism, that masterful force, would have to pay much more for workers if families weren't willing to pony up most of the time, money and effort necessary to raise them, train them and educate them.

Imagine a world in which businesses could largely rely on highly customized battery-powered robots but would require some humans to design, build and program them. In a competitive market, the price of robots would be determined by the cost of producing them, including the wages demanded by their human producers.

What a boon it would be to businesses -- and to their consumers -- if some humans so loved the process of creating robots that they were willing to do so for free, happily lavishing their own resources on the production of evermore beautiful and skilled models.

As the founders of Too Small to Fail, a campaign created in the hope of mobilizing a national discussion about "the need to invest in our nation's future: our kids," write, we as a nation are very reliant on our passionate "robot-producers," and we count on them to produce those "robots" with very little help.

Budgets reflect choices. The way we spend our money is not just about economics; it's about our values and priorities. And we, as Americans, have made a disturbing choice.

We have chosen not to support our kids.

We talk a good game, but at the federal and state levels, we have systematically chosen to invest in support for seniors, the military, "too big to fail" institutions, prisons -- but we have consistently chosen not to protect and support children.

These discussions and debates among the "childless" and the "child-ridden" are always entertaining, but as Folbre highlights, they do risk masking the larger issue. Say what you will about the environment and population growth, we do, as a nation, need our children.

We need them to be healthy, well-educated and prepared to take on the roles we adults fill now and more. We need them trained for the jobs that Thomas L. Friedman described in his column "If You've Got the Skills, She's Got the Job": the basic welding jobs that now require a knowledge of math and metallurgy. We need them trained as doctors and nurses and bankers and pilots, and we will, someday, be counting on them to do those jobs well.

And most of us, parents or not, love some child, somewhere. We are former children ourselves. We are sisters and aunts and neighbors, or maybe, in the words of the "gay uncle" Evan James in his Modern Love column, "august queer elders."

As the parents among us embark on what, for many, will be a week of travel among the childless and those whose long-grown children were once far better behaved than our own, and the nonparents brave family members demanding to know if and when they will supply the nieces and grandchildren so many relatives seem to require, Thanksgiving week is an excellent time to remember that we are all on the same side.

We may not exactly want to support the particular child whining in the airplane seat across the aisle (whether it's ours or not). But in a pre-election survey conducted by the Center for the Next Generation, nearly two-thirds of voters put issues that affect children and families high on the list of priorities for the next four years, and 88 percent agreed that we should make the same commitment to America's children as we have to our elderly.

Federally, we spend $7 on programs for elderly people for every $1 spent on programs for children. The result of that has been an incredible reduction in the number of older people living in poverty since the 1970s -- but 21 percent of the children in the United States live in families with incomes below the poverty level, the highest percentage since 1993 and the highest numbers (about 16.4 million) since 1962.

Happy parents and happy nonparents alike can agree that, as we head into the coming debate over the federal budget, figuring out how to support children without abandoning the elderly should be a priority.

This question of leaving nearly a quarter of our nation's children with very little choice at all, though, is one we can't afford to set aside.

Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at:

kj.dellantonia@nytimes.com

 

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