The recent debate in Washington concerned a spending cut of $50 billion. That's a lot of money to you and me, but it's only a few days worth of federal spending. It's a cut of less than .5% - less than one-half of one percent!
As our fiscal crisis deepens, a few voices are beginning to point out that all of our governments - federal, state, and local - simply have to cut spending drastically or we will really be in trouble.
We've listed a number of responsibilities that government has taken on which could be shed as if the government had passed through bankruptcy. Some people object, claiming that every civilized government has an obligation to provide a "safety net" for the poor. It's immoral, they say, for the government not to take care of those who are in need.
Let's assume for the moment that government indeed should look after the poorer, weaker members of our society instead of leaving the job to individuals or to churches. Whenever any of our "bigger government" pundits identify a problem and suggest that government ought to "do something" about it, they make the implicit assumption that government can do something constructive about the problem.
Promoters never want to talk about costs, of course. Everybody knows that government programs always cost a lot more than originally "estimated," but most people more or less assume that the government is able to make things better, even if only at ridiculous cost.
Unfortunately, that simply isn't so. Exhibit A is the horrific example of the fight against child abuse - an ideal situation for government intervention, you would think, because there's absolutely no political debate over whether child abuse is a Bad Thing and should be stopped.
In "The Poverty Clinic," the New Yorker reports on research which shows how childhood trauma affects adult health. They tell the story of Monisha Sullivan, a 16 year old African-American mother who came to a health clinic because she was depressed and listless. As a sympathetic staff member got her to open up and talk, her dysfunctional life history came out:
She hated school and didn't like her foster mother. She didn't seem to care about her two-month old daughter.
Her mother was a cocaine addict who abandoned her as she was born. She lived with her father and older brothers in an extremely violent neighborhood until her father started taking drugs
At age ten, she and her brothers were separated and removed into foster care. Foster care is supposed to provide a better, more stable environment than what the parents provide, but she had been in nine different government placements with nine different foster families.
In California, kids "graduate" out of foster care at age 18 and are given access to their case files. Monica read the account of her rootless adolescence:
"It brought up lots of emotions," she told me. "I read it and I kind of wanted to cry. But I was just, like, 'It's over with.'"
The most painful memory was of the day, in fifth grade, when she was pulled out of class by a social worker she had never met and driven to a strange new home. It was months before she was able to have contact with her father.
"I still dream about it," she told me. "I feel like I'm going to be damaged forever."
The New Yorker didn't explore the damage done to children by our government-suported child care system; their articles tend to come down on the side of more government intervention, not less.
The author wanted to show that emotional trauma causes stresses which lead to long-term health problems. The article made a good case for this, but without meaning to, also makes a good case for abolishing most of our child care system.
An Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study by Kaiser Permanente in 1995 asked 17,000 patients about childhood trauma such as alcoholic parents, sexual abuse, domestic violence, and other trauma. These data were correlated with Kaiser's extensive medical records.
The study assigned an "ACE score," recording one point for each area of trauma each person had experienced at least once.
Compared with people who had no history of ACEs, those with ACE scores of 4 or higher were twice as likely to smoke, seven times as likely to be alcoholics, and six times as likely to have had sex before the age of fifteen.
Men with an ACE score of 6 or higher were fourty-six times more likely to have injected drugs than men who had no history of ACE.
Having cited other, more recent studies, the New Yorker makes a very good case that childhood stress leads to adult health problems. The researchers then faced the question, "What do we do about it?"
The American health system spends billions of dollars per year trying to lower cholesterol because the data show that high cholesterol doubles your chance of heard disease. The data also say that having four or more ACEs doubles your risk of heart attack. Thus, they argue, it makes as much sense to reduce ACEs as to reduce cholesterol. What to do about ACEs?
A study in Oregon showed that overstressed children could be helped by changing the behavior of parents or caregivers. The study encouraged foster parents to be more responsive to the emotional cues of their foster children. A Delaware study promoted secure emotional attachment between children and their foster parents. Both studies measured levels of stress hormones in children and found that teaching foster parents to bond emotionally to children reduced the children's stress levels.
The article totally missed the implications of these studies - what sorts of parents have to be encouraged to bond with children? Bureaucratic, rule-bound parents, of course.
The researchers' dream is to develop a standard treatment plan for ACE:
Burke's [an ACE researcher] goal is a treatment protocol, like the one doctors use when they're dealing with cancer or diabetes. "For cancer patients, someone comes in, they have stage-four breast cancer, they're BRCA-negative, they have these different types of comorbid factors," she explained one day last fall. "As a doctor, I can look up that combination of indicators, and you know what to do. I would love to see a treatment protocol that says, you know, a child comes in, she's six years old. She has a history of intrauterine drug exposure and domestic violence." Burke ticked her way down an imaginary medical chart. "She is here today following removal from the home and foster-care placement after six years of physical and emotional abuse by dad and neglect by mom. And she's manifesting A, B, and C symptoms. And you could say, 'O.K., let's start with twelve weeks of biofeedback, overlaid with a one-year course of insight-oriented therapy and go on from there."
There are two difficulties with this rosy view. First, the cancer treatment protocols don't work nearly as well as advertised. As the New York Times put it, "We declared war on cancer, and cancer won." Second, as we've seen, applying bureaucratic rules to human beings results in great evil.
The relationship between childhood stress and adult health issues remains a bit controversial, partly because many researchers don't believe people tell the truth about their childhood problems. In spite of the uncertainty, scientists are beginning to translate this research into new laws and new social betterment programs.
Our problem with these well-meaning efforts is that it's clear that the programs our government already runs inflict countless Adverse Childhood Experiences on the children caught up in them. Consider Monisha's experiences. She was placed with a total of ten different foster families. How could she form emotional relationships with any adult? She knew that she could be yanked away at any moment due to factors beyond her understanding.
The Delaware and Oregon studies show that children do better when foster parents bond with them. That's utterly unsurprising - studies a century ago showed that babies who were physically cared for but didn't get much holding or cuddling died. It's been known for decades that emotional bonds are life and death to children, yet social workers yank kids randomly from home to home.
What about the parents? How can they bear to bond with a child that may be yanked away from them next week? Being jerked around by the child "protection" system made Monisha unable to bond with her daughter. She knew that even though she'd carried the child and given birth to her, it wasn't really her baby in any meaningful way; it belonged to the social workers. They could snatch her baby away from her at any time and there'd be nothing she could do about it. Is it any wonder that her emotions had been seared away?
If a parent treated a child as the system treated Monisha, they'd be hauled up on charges of emotional abuse. Treating children in this callous way which is known to be bad for them is evil, plain and simple.
If our government had wisely decided not to intervene in families no matter how dysfunctional except in cases of criminal violence prosecutable through criminal courts according to well-established due process, there would still be child abuse and ruined lives just as there are today. There would be less abuse, however, because government agencies abuse far more children than parents do. Not only that, we wouldn't be paying for it.