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 ( 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 ( We are forsaking the four-month old baby girl whose parents broke as many as 40  bones in her body (, the eight year old boy tortured day and night for months by his parents (, the teen starved for years by her parents until she looked like a concentration camp survivor (, and millions of other children suffering like them. (In 2007, 5.8 million children were involved 3.2 million reported cases of child abuse: 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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Many of the most pressing social problems we face are embedded in the loss of community, in dysfunctional families, in unaddressed behavioral and situational problems of children. Some consider these spheres of life to be beyond the purview of public policy, and too expensive to address even if government could or should be used to address them. I think this is mistaken on all counts, and more profoundly than immediately apparent.

First, the unaddressed (or under addressed) behavioral and mental health problems of children, and the unstable or unsafe family environments in which many find themselves, end up being extremely costly to society in the long run, both monetarily and socially. These under addressed problems are implicated in poor educational performance, delinquent and future criminal behavior, and a myriad of related problems that reduce individual productivity, increase economic and social burdens on society, and reproduce themselves generationally.

Second, our current programs tend to be piecemeal, reactive, and both fiscally inefficient and of more limited effectiveness than necessary. This is not a set of defects that we cannot substantially improve upon, and, in fact, there are many advances taking place right now which are doing just that. By placing ever-increasing emphasis on coordination among services and agencies that perform interrelated services for children and families in need, we reduce the costs of fractured and redundant services performed by seperate agencies with unconsolidated administrative costs. Those costs are far greater than providing oversight boards which help to coordinate and consolidate these overlapping services. By doing so, not only is the fiscal efficiency of providing services greatly increased, but also the outcome efficacy of these services, for when schools and juvenile justice agencies and mental health providers and child welfare counselors and others involved in addressing individual children’s needs are engaged in those efforts in better coordinated ways, all do their jobs more effectively, and contribute to a more effective regime of service provision.

Providing such proactive services more effectively, addressing the behavioral health challenges that so many of our youth face, helping to ensure that each child has a safe and nurturing permanent family environment in which to grow up in, and coordinating these efforts with both juvenile justice agencies and public schools, not only increases the present and future welfare of those children, but also reduces both the costs of reactive solutions to the problems thus avoided, and the costs to society of the problems themselves.

The costs of the relative failure of our educational system, for instance, are enormous, on many levels, costs that can be dramatically reduced through improvements in the effectiveness of our schools. And the enormnous costs of having the dubious distinction of being the nation, of all nations on Earth, with both the highest absolute number, and highest percentage of our population incarcerated, are perhaps directly tracable to our failure to address the childhood problems that lay the foundation for that unfortunate statistic.

Improving our proactive services to children and families is an up-front investment in our future, cultivating productive and well-adjusted members of society who contribute more to our collective welfare and less to our collective suffering. And even marginal gains on that dimension promise enormous future fiscal savings. It’s an investment we can’t afford not to make.

But the potential to improve the quality of our lives, and the prospects for our children, do not stop there. Increased community involvement provides one more pillar to the structure of improved support to children and families, increasing the vigilance with which problems are identified, the informal neighborly assistance and interventions with which they are avoided or mitigated, and the positive human capital with which child development is cultivated. Implementing robust community volunteer tutoring and mentoring programs is one easy step we can take to increase the strength of our communities, improve the quality of education our children receive, and provide our youth with a greater number of positive role models to emulate. In addition to such benefits are the benefits of increased informal mutual support in times of need, and just as an ordinary part of life, each of us helping one another out just a little bit more, because we have spent more time working together as members of a cohesive community.

There are no panaceas, and I do not mean to imply that the policy agenda I am outlining would solve all of our problems, would magically make all children well-behaved and studious, and all neighbors helpful. I am suggesting that, as always, we can do better or worse, we can improve on our current social institutional framework or not, and we can strive to increase the opportunities available to our children for their future success, and our improved shared quality of life.

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