Raising Kids Takes More Than a Village ... or Even Head Start

Promoters of the nanny state and their loyal ally, the Clinton administration, are trying to get the government back in the health-care business. This time they are opening up shop in the pediatric ward. Trading on the anxiety all parents feel for their children's well-being - and indeed Americans' traditional desire to protect the health and safety of all children - a coalition led by the Families and Work Institute has launched a campaign that could well result in the establishment of new middle-class entitlements and the expansion of welfare-state paternalism. Before it's all over, it could take a village bureaucrat to raise your child.

Yesterday, the coalition kicked off the "I Am Your Child" campaign. Its backers call it a national public awareness and engagement campaign to make early childhood development a top priority for our nation. Of course, raising children is already a priority for at least one interest group: America's parents. But why should they have a monopoly?

The campaign is a full multimedia push, and includes yesterday's launch at the Columbia Hospital for Women, with its convenient photo opportunity at the maternity ward; a White House conference scheduled for today; and a one-hour ABC special to air April 28. On April 24, a special issue of Newsweek, underwritten by baby-products manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, will hit the news stands. The issue landed in subscribers' mailboxes this week.

Promotional materials include "The First Years Last Forever," a booklet underwritten by AT&T; a video helping parents understand the first three years of life, paid for by Johnson & Johnson; and an informational CD-ROM, courtesy of IBM.

Of course, the organizers of this campaign aren't neglecting the public policy angle. The campaign, to quote its own goals, sets out to "Unite and expand the work being done on the national, state and local levels . . . [and] Increase the public will to make quality resources and services more widely available."

In other words, the organizers want to use pictures and stories of vulnerable infants to persuade Americans of the need for higher taxes and new federal programs. The Rand Corporation is under contract to research the long-term benefits of various early childhood development policies. This, the campaign backers hope, will provide a context of sound social science - and even fiscal conservatism - to the effort to expand the welfare state.

But is there a crisis in child welfare in the United States? The answer is that, measured by a variety of indices, America's children are better off today then ever before. Although distressing anecdotes can always be cited, the June issue of Reason magazine notes that since the turn of the century, the chance of an infant dying before his or her 15th birthday has dropped by 95 percent. Indeed, the figures on childhood mortality have dropped 72 percent just since 1950.

Furthermore, while there are obviously irresponsible parents, a campaign like this is unlikely to reach them. What it will tell people is that the first three years of a child's life are critical for the formation of his brain.

What to do? Pay attention to your child; talk to your child; don't put your child in a closet while you watch TV, or while you inhale, inject or ingest drugs. For the vast majority of parents, this is not revolutionary child-rearing advice. As Newsweek observes, "Science confirms what wise parents have long known: kids need lots of time and attention." Those unaware of this are not very likely to be moved by photo-ops and newsweekly special issues.

But the campaign's goal is less to impart truisms than it is to lay the foundations for further expanding the federal government into health care, child-care, and the workplace. Kicking off the press conference, filmmaker Rob Reiner declared that a goal of the campaign is to rally support for policy makers.

The federal government will have a two-part role to play in the hoped-for child care entitlement: pay the bills and set standards. The lead article in the Newsweek special issue already frets that, "Day care is another pressing issue. Fifty-six percent of mothers of children under 4 are in the work force, yet there are no national standards."

Responding to a national study that produced mixed results on the effects of day care, Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote in her column last week, "[S]trengthening our child care system must be a national priority. While there is a variety of child care options in the country . . . the quality of care is often uneven." That takes care of the standards. Three paragraphs later, she calls for a new entitlement. "[G]overnment can play a role in providing subsidies for working parents . . . and for women who are moving from welfare to the work force," Mrs. Clinton wrote, thus using child care assistance for welfare recipients as a wedge to include working families. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd has introduced a bill to do just that.

As for health care, a bill co-sponsored by Sens. Orrin G. Hatch and Edward M. Kennedy would create a health care entitlement for up to 83 percent of American families. And our first lady has said she would support a government mandate for maternity leave if it was politically and economically feasible.

Who is opposed to improved health and safety for children? No one, obviously. The real question is, who is opposed to an increased government role in child rearing? Many more people are likely to step forward in such a roll call. And among them are likely to be many parents, who are in a better position to determine the quality of their children's day care, their children's health, their children's lives, than anyone else. Growing up is tough enough without adding more federal bureaucracy to the impediments of childhood.

This article was published in the April 17, 1997 The Washington Times.

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