When a child feels worthy

April 7, 2014

News reports tell us that 1-year-old Lyra, who fell ill while on a sailboat that had become disabled in the Pacific, is safe and getting the health care she needs. I am glad. I am glad the U.S. Navy responded to her parents’ distress call and that her parents are no longer sick with worry.

At the same time, I think about the many infants and children in this country who are not rescued by our government. Children who go to bed hungry. Children who live in housing and neighborhoods that endanger their physical and emotional health every single day. Their parents know they must fend for themselves.

What Lyra’s story highlights are the assumptions about who gets help, who deserves help. The lack of public discussion over the use of public resources to rescue one child adrift in the Pacific Ocean instead of so many who are adrift in the ocean of poverty suggests that we already know the answer to the question of who will be rescued because it is built into our system—our system of privilege. The system of privilege is one reason Lyra’s parents felt safe heading into the ocean on their yacht with their two small children. This system of privilege is why hundreds of other parents do not send out distress signals—because they know no one will respond, that they will be told that taking care of their children is their responsibility, and if they can’t do it without some assistance from time to time, they are parasites feeding on the hard work of others.

When it comes to poor children, children of undocumented workers, children who are not white, children being raised by single parents, we invoke the myth of individualism—that we live in a country of unlimited opportunity and that anyone willing to work hard can make it on their own. Those who fail to do that are told they don’t deserve help.

Findings from a study in North Carolina that began in the 1970s show that it does not take much intervention with children to achieve far-reaching and long-lasting results. The Abecedarian Project involved more than 100 poor children, mostly African American with mothers who had not graduated high school and had no one to care for their children while they worked. The children were randomly assigned to one of two groups. Both groups received nutritional supplements, basic social services, and access to health care. In addition, the “treatment” group received 6-8 hours of high quality day care for the first five years of their lives. They were held, played with, and talked to by trained caregivers. The cost was approximately $70,000 per child.

The results have been dramatic. Children in the treatment group were four times more likely to have graduated college and thirty percent more likely to be employed in a skilled job. What surprised researchers, however, is that the treatment group is also healthier physically, with significantly less heart disease and obesity. Economists are now doing a cost-to-benefit analysis, which I hope will take into account not only what is saved in the cost of health care and social services, but the increased contributions to society of children who grow up more prepared to be productive citizens.

What we can’t put a dollar figure to, however, is the impact it has on these children to experience being treated as though they have worth to society. Imagine every child feeling the way Lyra might feel one day—that I was valuable enough that my country invested enough resources in me that I would not only survive, but thrive.



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