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As we continue the great national debate over whether we are the kind of people who believe that worshipping mindlessly at the alter of the “small government” idol is more important than using government as intelligently as we can as one tool with which to confront the challenges and opportunities of a complex and subtle world, let’s put some meat on the bones of what, and who, we are forsaking when we fight to shrink our government. (What follows is just one, most poignant, example of the myriad ways in which our anti-government hysteria in this country is really an act of collective cruelty and callousness, and an economically irrational one at that.)

We are foresaking, among others, the millions, perhaps tens of millions, of American children who endure horrendous abuse and neglect every day. We are forsaking the little girl in North Carolina who not only suffered from bone cancer and lost a limb to it, but also was relegated to a living hell by a callous and cruel parent, and has quite probably since been murdered and disposed of by her (http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20101012/ap_on_re_us/us_missing_girl_north_carolina). We are forsaking “The Lost Children of Wilder,” the children depicted in the book by Nina Bernstein by that name which traced the history of one little girl and the court case in her name, illustrating how the need to buy child services on the cheap, through religious organizations, led to horrendous abuses and systemic deficiences (http://www.nytimes.com/books/01/03/25/reviews/010325.25luhrmat.html). We are forsaking the four-month old baby girl whose parents broke as many as 40  bones in her body (http://www.wral.com/news/local/story/2764548/), the eight year old boy tortured day and night for months by his parents (http://newstalkradiowhio.com/localnews/2010/08/horrendous-child-abuse-case-in.html), the teen starved for years by her parents until she looked like a concentration camp survivor (http://www.komonews.com/news/30891284.html), and millions of other children suffering like them. (In 2007, 5.8 million children were involved 3.2 million reported cases of child abuse: http://www.childhelp.org/pages/statistics. The number of reported cases vastly underrepresents the number of actual cases, since what happens behind the closed doors of the family home is rarely reported).

There are those who argue that declining to empower and fund our government to address these problems more assertively and proactively is not the same as “forsaking” these children, because there are laws against child abuse, and we prosecute those who violate them. But that is not preventative medicine, and does not make the suffering of these millions of children any more palatable, any less tragic, and, most importantly, any less preventable.

There are those who argue that it is indeed our social responsibility to try to address this problem, but that government is not the right vehicle for doing so. They refer to private charities as being the preferable system, conveniently ignoring the historical deficiency of relying on private charities to address social problems, and the role that those charities have played in implementing public policies and programs that mobilized resources the charities themselves recognized they would never be able to.

There are those who argue that addressing these issues should be left to state and local governments rather than the federal government, to which I say, fine, as long as we fund state and local governments sufficiently to address them, and empower state and local governments to do so. Unfortunately, those who make this argument tend to be the same people who passed TABOR in Colorado (and are currently floating far more extreme revenue-depriving ballot measures). The “small government” crowd may refer most often to the federal government, but, when push comes to shove, it’s all government that they oppose.

The tragic irony is that they are not only crippling our ability to assist these children so desperately in need of our assistance and intervention, but that they are imposing far more devastating fiscal and economic costs on us by doing so. Our public failure to provide effective social services to those who need them creates long-term problems whose reactive costs are far, far greater than the costs of providing effective proactive services would have been. A quote from the above-linked New York Times article about The Lost Children of Wilder reveals the consequences of failing to deal with poverty proactively:

This book makes two things clear. First, it is foolish to separate parents from children with the ease that our current system encourages. Our policies assert that it should be less comfortable to be on welfare than to work, which is sensible. They also assert that a mother who cannot feed and house her child should not raise him, which also is sensible. The consequences are not. [One particular child's] care cost the city half a million dollars, far more than it would have cost to support his mother, and it repeatedly and traumatically severed him from an enduring human relationship, as crucial to a child’s development as food and heat.

Second, the problem is poverty. This is perhaps not a novel insight, but this history makes it sickeningly clear that the state cannot solve the problem of needy children without doing something about the conditions that produce them. There are so many children, so few resources — in this stunningly prosperous age — and, repeatedly, solutions born of crisis and good intention create disasters of their own. Children who enter the system tend to exit it as poor and unskilled as the parents who bore them, and the cycle grinds painfully on.

It’s time to stop justifying our cruel condemnation of millions of American children to the most nightmarish of existences by recourse to an ideology which, when you strip away the layers of hollow rationalization, really amount to the institutionalization of mutual indifference, and inexcusable indifference to children in need.

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