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Does America Hate Its Children?

by BENJAMIN J. GEORGE

Over the last few weeks I seem to read with increasing frequency news that suggests a particularly pernicious truth in American politics: there is utter contempt and hatred for children.  Before you go on to dismiss my statements as ramblings that only pertain to the somehow less-human children in other countries, let me clearly state that when it comes to children this country does not discriminate.  We hate our own children as much as any throughout the world.  OK, let me be fair and say almost as much.  But we still never miss an opportunity to harm our most innocent and helpless members of our own society.  Examples abound.

Today the Obama Administration announced that it would base whether or not low-income earners would be eligible for government subsidies regarding the ACA mandatory insurance scheme on an individual’s income without factoring his or her family.  Essentially this means millions of poor children will have no health insurance, left to the privations of the neoliberal market.  To be clear, little has actually changed.  Nearly 10 percent of all children in the U.S. currently do not have health insurance—some 7.3 million children.  Additionally, the percentage of children who live in poverty and have no health coverage is 15.4 percent!!  And in 2012 $400 million dollars was cut from the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).  What is new about this judgment is that it effectively institutionalizes the right of private business to further discriminate against children.  After all, they do cost the more to look after and what profit is there in that?  So when 26,000 children die each year, prematurely, because of lack of health insurance I am truly hard-pressed to arrive at another conclusion than children simply don’t matter.

On another front—as in battle-zone— Wednesday students in Chicago were subjected to the privilege of a new type of school emergency drill.  In what was called “Code Red Lockdown Drill”, students at McHenry County School listened to the sound of gunshots from a starters pistol as they prepared for what seems like a normality: school shootings.  To be sure, this incident wasn’t taken lightheartedly; debates ranged the usual spectrum.  But how can we expect our children to feel secure, confident and to develop a sound psychology if they are in fear of a shooting all day any more so than they already are?  And it is not as if Chicago student’s don’t know what a gun sounds like anyway.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel presides over a city that has an unusually high homicide rate and a high school shooting rate.  Yet there are easily discernible reasons for this.  Chicago, like many deindustrialized cities, has a high unemployment and poverty rates.  Over thirty percent of Chicago’s students live in poverty, far greater than the national average.  This has only been exacerbated by the downturn and the many recent cuts to youth and other social programs, especially since the Stimulus expired.  Chicago may also be, of all of the cities save for Detroit, the one most affected by the engineered segregation that plagued most postwar industrial cities.  In fact, today Chicago is America’s most segregated city.  And like most segregated cities police brutality is endemic.  Yet this doesn’t stop the city from placing about 153 police in Chicago schools.  So the predictable outcome of putting the very police who brutalize students in their own neighborhoods—another 200 were added to the streets today— into their schools is that 20 percent of juvenile arrests are now on school grounds, half of which are Black arrests.  The NYU Brenner Law Center has found that if a student is arrested for a misdemeanor before graduating they are far less likely to graduate.  Worse yet, so many students are pushed directly and indirectly into the prison system, not just in Chicago but nationwide, that the term school-to-prison pipeline has become ubiquitous.

The problem is execrably worse, however.

The U.S. boasts the world’s largest prison system—one the schools are helping to grow.  One in 26 children have at least one parent incarcerated.  Far more ominous, nearly 80,000 children languish in the U.S. prison system.  And as of 2005 there were 2,225 children that the U.S. had written off, consigned to life, and the death, in prison.  Equally disturbing is that with all we know about prolonged periods of isolation (remember, this technique figures prominently into our torture program), 122 children across 19 states spent up to 22 hours each day in solitary confinement in 2012.  Such developments beg the question in what ways have we failed our children that we are willing to do what almost no other nation on earth will do and imprison them in these numbers and under these conditions?

The answer might be found in yet another example of how we as a society treat our children.

The agricultural business is one that has long thrived off of cheap labor, dating back to slavery and sharecropping.  After the Great Depression, when workers forced American capitalism to put on a more friendly face, there was a provision in the Fair Standards labor Act (FLSA) that allowed for children as young as 12 years old to work the land.  In the intervening years the portion of the farming population has decreased from 40 percent to 1.5 today due to mechanization and petrochemicals, universal in corporate agriculture.  It is these latter two that not only make corporate farming so profitable but also make it so hazardous.  It is also extremely profitable because the agriculture business depends upon precarious workers such as migrant farm workers’ children, who can legally work under the FSLA.  It is not unusual therefore for children to work as many as 12 hours a day in the fields, often missing school to do so.

Daily, child farm laborers face many inimical working conditions, causing great bodily and psychological harm.  Briefly these include mechanical injury, musculoskeletal injuries, wage-theft, dehydration, heat exhaustion, and an unsanitary environment.  As a matter if fact, the majority of work related injures for children occur overwhelmingly in the agricultural sector.  Yet of them, none may be more pressing than overexposure to chemical pesticides and fertilizers.  However, federal regulatory bodies like OSHA and the EPA have failed to enforce even minimal safety and health regulations or penalize employers for their most egregious abuses.  Indeed, while the average fine for abrogating a child labor law was a paltry $212 in 1990, most protective laws are easily sidestepped.    The Worker Protection Standard, for instance, says that while children under 18 cannot directly handle Class I&II toxic chemicals, it bases its overall exposure limits on a human body weight of 154lbs.  This effectively means that there is no regulation for exposure of children to pesticides.  Accordingly, a study in the America Journal of Public Health found of the 18 jobs dealing with pesticides classified by the Department of Labor (DOL) as unsafe for children, few suffering from pesticide-induced illnesses had been performing exempt jobs.  Meanwhile, the Southern Poverty Law center finds that since 1974 the number of Hour and Wage Investigators employed by the DOL has decreased by 14 percent while the number of workers covered under the FSLA has seen a 36 percent increase.  Farmers have boasted that under these guidelines it is easier to pay a fine if caught breaking the law than to implement more safety protections.

Consequently child farm laborers incur health risks such as skin rashes and nausea in the near term to far more serious ailments like cancer and compromised sexual reproduction in the long term.  (And children who work in the Carolina tobacco fields are exposed to a 1.5 packs of cigarettes worth of nicotine daily, thereby making addiction a near certainty.)  Nevertheless the Obama Administration recently scuttled a bill that would have strengthened child agricultural worker protections, especially regarding exposure to carcinogens.  The point being that our lawmakers are so beholden to assuring the profits of big business that they will disregard children’s lives whether in China, Palestine or at home.

It stands to reason then that rather than address the fact that we have a run-away, for-profit health insurance system that kills 50,000 people a year, address that we have a structural jobs crisis that has resulted in an outright depression for Blacks and Black youth (which is statistically far worse if the imprisoned were calculated into school achievement and employment data), or children literally dying picking food in the fields, the only logical thing to do is further militarize our already militarized schools as North Branford, CT. just decided to do.  Never mind that that this tactic has failed—even Columbine had an armed guard— as most inner cities are too well aware, the U.S. never misses a chance to throw money into militarism and corporate coffers much as it never misses an opportunity to offend its children.

Benjamin J. George is a social justice activist who may be reached at benjaminjgeorge@gmail.com  

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