It may seem anti-social to smother the baby you birthed, but for a teenager schooled in the values of American society, maybe not so much. Tiona Rodriguez, who was 17 at the time, may have needed some more adult direction to keep from going shopping and shoplifting right after birthing a baby and killing it. It is time to face that, given our abysmal record protecting children’s well-being with sensible social policy, what is miraculous is that more teenagers and grown women are not behaving as recklessly and, being as devoid of emotion as Ms. Rodriguez was when caught with a dead baby in her purse in the middle of Victoria’s Secret.
Policies and institutions mirror the values and principles of society. Despite the public statements of leaders and legislators who swear they care about American children, a look at our social policy makes it clear children are an afterthought in America. While you may care about children, our public assistance and other aid programs are designed not according to your beliefs, but according to the personal beliefs of our Congress and centuries old notions of sexuality, and who deserves to be helped and who doesn’t. This is why we design welfare programs in which malnourishment and poverty are not only prolonged, they are worsened.
I don’t know any individual who would say that his values include setting the maximum public assistance payment to 40 percent of the poverty line; leaving young children away from their parents eight or more hours a day; or contraception without a parent’s consent for children too young to even spell the word; or causing children younger than ten to walk themselves to school; or sexually provocative advertisements in plain view of teenagers as they hang out with their friends after school. Who would agree that teenagers should see their parents so little that they could be pregnant and their mothers don’t even know it, as Ms. Rodriguez was? Yet collectively, our silence on these matters are a tacit “okay” to Congress to create social policies that make all these things happen.
Ultimately, talking about how much we care about children is not the measure of our values and principles. Our actual treatment of children is. If we routinely disregard what children need to be well, it must be because we are okay with it.
Legislators assure us that we have a safety net that helps people while they become “self sufficient” (whatever that means; as we used to say, no man is an island). But since 1996, states have been allowed to set the level of the monthly welfare check so low that no human being can exist on it. Welfare checks have no COLA, and are routinely set as low as 30 percent of the poverty line. How about $303 a month in Florida for a three person family? How about $700 in New York City? $185 in Tennessee? No amount, regardless of cost of living, is too low.
We’ve heard about too big to fail—but what about too small to succeed? Setting benefit levels absurdly well makes as much sense as filling your gas tank with twenty gallons of gas for a trip that requires sixty. You are not going to get there, no matter how much gumption, chutzpah, or motivation you have.
Meanwhile, states routinely fail to spend about $3 billion in federal anti-poverty funds at the end of each passing year. They do this at the same time that more middle class parents are being thrown out of work and into poverty, six million people ages 16-24 have no work and are not enrolled in college. Is it the states can’t find any Americans in need to spend the rest of the money on? New York had $371 million unspent at the end of a recent year. Why not use the funds to increase the monthly benefit so it brings the family income up to 100% of the poverty line, instead of 30 to 40 percent? Or why not set up a college fund, so the teens will have something to look forward to?
Because American values, or at least the values of the legislators, say that eating as well as the non-poor will corrupt American poor children, that’s why.
Though the payments are tiny, ‘welfare’ at least reached 68 out of every 100 Americans families in poverty before 1996’s welfare reform; today it reaches only 27 of every 100 families in poverty. If you had a fishing net that let three quarters of the fish slip through, would you think it was a good net? And despite only serving ¼ of poor families, state welfare programs out-bad each other to see who can give the tiniest cash assistance. Every public aid program we have shames women for having babies they “can’t afford,” as if in 21st century America, being able to afford children is the norm, and not being able to, the exception, when thanks to an anemic economy, massive job loss, foreclosures, and shrinking wages, the opposite is true.
Maybe this is what Mario Cuomo former governor of New York, was talking about when he called the erosion of the social safety net one more piece of The New Harshness, an ideology intended to stamp out our human desire for affiliation and with it our obligations to one another.
Young women who prioritize skinny jeans over protecting their own child may not know the above stark details of the policies that they are subject to, but they don’t need to. They have TVs and they have internet. They see the constant welfare bashing clips on YouTube. They see their moms working for slave wages. They see little boys selling candy in the subway cars of Brooklyn, and the headlines in which little girls have to run from sexual predators while they are walking home alone. We have made our teens callous, but this has not made them stupid. In their own neighborhoods, they see the low income mothers tossed about from one “job training” to another, the toddlers bounced around to wherever the day care voucher will let them in. They know that half the women on welfare have their own kids in a daycare while welfare makes them take care of another recipient’s kid. The only mothers they ever see being applauded are the Gisele Bunchens, Beyonces, and Katie Holmeses of the world, all of whom look fabulous in Victorias Secret and have enough money that their babies win the approval of the wealth obsessed American public.
If they read up on current events on the way to their Facebook pages, they know that a huge Food Stamp cut was just made in Congress (its old news since the shutdown, but ‘whatever,’ as the teens say). They couldn’t help but hear the chorus of Congressmen calling people on Food Stamps “too fat,” “too dependent” and “too lazy to work” (This last accusation, in the wake of Congressmen taking two weeks off while Americans suffered, is particularly amusing). They read Kevin Cramer of North Dakota say that Food Stamps create “a culture of permanent dependency.” Or they read Rep. Steve King’s false assurances to constituents with a conscience that the deep cuts in Food Stamps would only deny aid to children who didn’t really need the aid anyway: “there won’t be needy people taken off this.” (What policy analysis mechanism is able to assess this with any certainty is beyond me). Meanwhile, a person on Food Stamps gets $4.50 per day, not enough for one decent meal. Even in the poorhouses of the colonial era people got two meals per day. How far we want to slide in our commitment to children in the name of pursuing vague antiquated notions of morality and work is anyone’s guess.
Six million Americans ages 16 to 24 are out of work but can’t afford to go to college. Maybe Ms. Rodriguez is one of these. Charles Blow, writing for the Times, has criticized the lack of investment in our future workforce, a criticism that despite his efforts falls on deaf congressional ears. Statistically speaking, 80% of Ms. Rodriguez’s friends will have to take remedial English and Math to start college, because they weren’t taught these in the NYC public schools. She knows 50,000 city children are homeless. Ms. Rodriguez herself would be homeless if she weren’t doubled up with her own mother.
According to a study in the Harvard Law Review, over 60 percent of abortions in the United States are carried out not because those women don’t wish to be mothers, but because women worry that they will not be able to afford to raise a child without falling into poverty. And black and latina women seek abortions more often than white women, a sort of ethnic genocide that goes unaddressed. Black women are about 13% of the U.S. population but they account for one third of abortions. When inequality shows its ugly face in other areas of our society, such as housing or job discrimination, legislators go bonkers. No progressive nor conservative women appear to lose sleep over this inequality.
Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, points out each year that New York City’s abortion rates have soared to unacceptable levels, but his voice is a lone conscientious objector in a nation whose social policies so obviously neglect children. Pundits don’t vocally object to Dolan’s point. Silence is the only dignified response when you know that the welfare legislation you supported lets states send pregnant clients to abortion providers instead of using federal welfare funds to help them keep the pregnancy.
Oops. This is already scary, but I have to add more evidence of the societal callousness that has overrun us. Didn’t a preteen girl just get caught throwing kittens into traffic? Didn’t a 12 year old girl just commit suicide in Florida? Wasn’t an unarmed teen just shot in New York? Instead of calling an adult to help them when a girl passes out at a party, her “friends” sexually assault her, draw on her skin with magic markers, and post the evidence on the internet. What’s meaner, children bullying another child to despair, or legislators allowing a state set its poverty aid payments too low to take care of a child, even when the state itself has determined that the payment they give is not enough?
Whether or not Ms. Rodriguez’s actions disturb us because they show a lack of basic emotional response more appropriate to a Walking Dead episode than to real life, a total absence of compassion for the feelings and right of her baby to be alive. And humanity cannot survive without compassion. Compassion and cooperation are not natural impulses in humans—they must be taught. Her callousness was taught to her by our values and principles, by what she saw in her own surroundings, and by the pro-choice women who push the envelope of tolerance for abortion by teaching young women that abortion is an act of liberation that has no negative consequences. As we can see from the many instances in which women kill their newborns, the results of teaching that babies are disposable and abortion is liberating are scarier than any Halloween flick.