Sylvia Ann Hewlitt

Neglecting Our Children … A New American Way?

VTR Date: November 3, 1991

Social critic Sylvia Ann Hewlitt discusses child care in America.


GUEST: Sylvia Ann Hewlitt
VTR: 11/3/1991

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND…and first and foremost today’s program will be about – when it comes to our children – Americans’ new greed and ignorance, our amorality, immorality, and immaturity, our care-lessness and mindlessness in balancing the well-being of America’s elderly with that or our young…About our lack of concern for our children’s needs as opposed to our own in developing public policies that might better withstand real scrutiny and command the worlds’ respect.

Now, your response may be disbelief. Who’s kidding whom? After all, that’s not the child-centered, dote-on-our-kids America we know. Isn’t the real trouble in this country that we pamper our kids, give them too much?! Well, maybe in your household that’s the way it really is, or in your neighbors’…or maybe that’s only the way we want to feel it is. But it isn’t. And the unavoidable facts of child neglect in American life – as spelled out in Basic Books’ hard-hitting, hard-headed “When the Bough Breaks: The Cost of Neglecting Our Children” – are as riveting as they are horrendous. Just for a moment in our lives of self-fulfillment, let’s just tote up some of these realities stretching way beyond the fact that 20% of all children in America are growing up in poverty, a 21% increase since 1970. “Children in America are at much greater risk than children elsewhere in the advanced industrial world. Compared with other rich countries, children in the United States are much more likely to die before their first birthday, to live in poverty, to be abandoned by their fathers, and to be killed before they reach the age of 25. Although the United States ranks number two world-wide in per capita income, this country does not even make it into the top 10 on any significant indicator of child welfare”.

Well, these facts provide “When the Bough Breaks” its pain. Its accomplished author, economist, social critic, Sylvia Ann Hewlitt provides its power, too, in her insight that we Americans need to devote new and better energy to our children not only because it is the right thing to do, but also to save our own lives. My guest writes, too, that “a necessary condition for finding fulfillment in life is an attachment to something larger than the lonely self”…but also that “the individual is a very poor site for finding meaning”. And so I want to begin today by asking Ms. Hewlitt just why she ends her utterly compelling analysis of the cost of neglecting our children with a chapter entitled “The Limits of Freedom”. Why, Ms. Hewlett?

Hewlitt: Well, I think after a couple of years where a kind of freedom’s been breaking out all around the world, it’s necessary to take a hard look at American capitalism, to make sure that we could be proud of what’s happening here at home. And I think the tale of what’s happening to our children is really unmoral as well as a supremely destructive tale. You know a child born in the shadow of the White House has a less good chance of living that first year of life, than a child born in Trinidad or Singapore? It is not just in the ghetto that children are doing so badly. This problem very much belongs to you and me, as well as to people “over there”. Just think of some of the figures – teenage suicide ha tripled over the last 15 years. That’s very much a middle-class phenomenon. And for the college bound kid, SAT scores have fallen some 73 points over the last generation. I think really right across the board, American children are failing to flourish and we’re all going to pay a huge price for that fact.

Heffner: Are you saying that that this, indeed, that these facts, these statistics are, indeed, the limits of freedom?

Hewlitt: I…

Heffner: Do they go with the territory?

Hewlitt: Yes. I do not think we can wreak this kind of damage on our children in a costly fashion. It’s going to come back to haunt us. Come back to haunt us in financial ways, but in terms, also, of the quality of all of our lives. And, let me make it very personal, Richard. A couple of summers ago I got to know an 8 year old kid in one of these homeless shelters in New York City. When I got to know him, Brian spent a great deal of his day torturing pigeons. And it turned out that at the heart of his agony was the fact that his baby sister had been found dead in their shelter room, at 10 months old at the time of death weighing just 7 pounds. And I think that looking at Brian, looking at his rage, looking at his actions, realizing that he’d already dropped out of school, now thing we don’t realize is that these throwaway kids are not cost-free. They’re not expendable in any sense. If you look at the New York City numbers you’ll find that the cost to the taxpayer of each throwaway life, like Brian, is actually $300,000. You know that’s the cost of a kid that drops out, that spends a life time in and out of the welfare system, or in and out of our penal system. That’s the cost of not producing a productive citizen.

Heffner: But you know, it seems so strange to me…I was very much taken by those and other figures, statistics, in “When the Bough Breaks”…in this book…

Hewlitt: Yes.

Heffner: …you’re saying “If I can’t appeal to you on the grounds of what we should be doing, as moral human beings…

Hewlitt: Yes.

Heffner: …let me at least appeal to you…

Hewlitt: Yes.

Heffner: …in your own business terms…

Hewlitt: Yes.

Heffner: …what it’s costing us.

Hewlitt: Yes.

Heffner: How do you account for the fact that in a free and free business enterprise, capitalistic system, where we’re supposed to feel that the bottom line, and there’s always “the bottom line”, how come we’re that foolish as to endanger that bottom line with the kind of public policy that you decry in this book?

Hewlitt: Well, I think if we, say, look at the 80s…which was surely a bonfire of the vanities in all kinds of ways…We adopted very short-term thinking in our public morality, if you like. That was a decade where we reduced the amount of money we spent on kids by 52%, when we stopped paying for things like measles shots and prenatal care. And that was a decade where we tripled our defense budgets, and we doubled the amount of money we spent on elderly citizens. And if you look hard and see why we were prepared to, you know, put those social dollars into the elderly and not into children, you come back to voting power, I think, greed, short-term reasoning on all kinds of fronts. I personally have no problem in actually putting more money into the elderly in need. But the fact that, you know, citizens over 65 in perfectly good health are getting subsidies of $11,000 a year right now doesn’t make sense in a nation where one-third of pregnant women don’t get adequate prenatal care. And when there are two year olds in, you know, Kansas City, and in Watts, who are not getting measles shots anymore…right now you know we have tuberculosis and polio coming back because we’re failing our children so badly. And yet, you know, 20 years ago the elderly were not organized. They did not have this enormous clout in Washington, but now, you know, almost 80% of senior citizens vote with great effect, and parents are so disenfranchised they don’t even bother to vote any more, you know. Only 30% of parents vote and as a result those children are not getting much of a voice at all in our political process.

Heffner: And you’re suggesting that those figures about voter apathy…

Hewlitt: Yes.

Heffner: …if that’s what it is, come from the fact that parents are too involved in doing other things that relate to their own personal interests.

Hewlitt: Well, I do think that a great many parents are struggling with an overload of stress. I mean one of the facts that I, I think try and really prove in this book is that there has been a tremendous vacuum created in children’s’ lives vis-à-vis the time and attention from parents. The amount of time parents spend with their kids has dropped something like 40% over the last 20 years. Now if you look at the reasons behind that… some of them are pretty obvious. You know there are many more mothers in the work force, but there are many more absentee fathers, too. Again, one of the very distressing facts in this book is that 40% of fathers never see their children in the wake of divorce. And then the other thing that’s happening is that the work week has gotten so long in this very insecure, you know, newly restructured work place of ours. The number of hours adults, both male and female spend on the job has gone up 6 hours a week, just during the 80s. Now, obviously all of those things together create this vacuum for children. They are simply not getting the attention or the hands-on care that happened a generation ago, and that’s really, I think, making particularly the middle class child at risk.

Heffner: That’s interesting, you say, “particularly the middle class child”. I suspect you would say the lower class child has always been at risk. And now we’re putting at risk…

Hewlitt: Yes.

Heffner: …so many more of our children.

Hewlitt: Well, you know, there’s one story in this book about Becky…she lives in Pacific Palisades, you know, one of the wealthiest communities in the US. Becky at 14 is strung out on valium, really, you know, almost flunking out of school. Becky tells me she feels like a throwaway child. And her story is that after a divorce, her father cleared off, you know. She hasn’t seen him in 7 ½ years, and her mother’s trying to make it in a new marketing career and working a 60 hour week. I mean, for the middle class child that is increasingly the face of neglect.

Heffner: And I gather you would make it more difficult for parent then to find divorce as a solution to their mutual problems.

Hewitt: Well I would put the interests of children at the center of our divorce laws. For instance I would, perhaps, put a time requirement in. You know in a lot of states these days you can get a unilateral divorce after six months with no agreement as to what is going to happen to the kids. A recent commission in Europe suggested that all of these advanced countries that are struggling with the repercussions of divorce on children should throw sand into the machinery of divorce. In other words just slow it down a bit. They weren’t suggesting that we return to the bad old days of fault-divorce, but what they were suggesting is that we give some time for reflection for good planning for putting the interests of the child at the center of the process.

Heffner: Now in this country that makes one, in quotation marks, a “reactionary”, right? One is going back or looks to go back to a time when divorce was harder to get. Now is this what you advocate?

Hewlitt: Well…

Heffner: The sand…

Hewlitt: …yes…

Heffner: …doesn’t it come out to a movement back?

Hewlitt: Well, I suppose that there is a conservative element in that kind of prescription, but it’s not something that is peculiar to the Right Wing any longer. If you go talk to judges, as I have around this country, you will find that no matter which party they belong to or what their political complexion, they are seeing the enormous damage that has been done by this free and easy, open system of divorce that we adopted in the 1970s. And most people are struggling with ideas of how to make it less of a chaotic damaging scene for children.

Heffner: But Ms. Hewlitt, after the first World War we, we used to say “How are you going to keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?”, when the soldiers who’d been overseas and had seen different ways of living had come back. How are you going to take them back to an older, more stable, more conservative pattern of social mores? How now do you move back, having gone through the, the “greed years” if you want to…

Hewlitt: Yes.

Heffner: …characterize them that way?

Hewlitt: Yes.

Heffner: How do you go back, how do you establish responsibility for one’s children ad the prime motif in one’s family life?

Hewitt: I think that’s an enormously central question. A very important question that’s, really, you know, complicated in terms of trying to answer it. For starters, if you go talk to those children of divorce, and there’s many of them now reaching maturity themselves…All of the surveys show that they want more stability in their lives. They, in effect, want to re-create a more traditional pattern, at least in terms of their partnerships and their children. And I think the other factor is that many of us, having lived through the 70s and 80s realize that, you know, cloning the male competitive model in our work lives, which I think we women have done, to excess, or creating this kind of uninhibited freedom in our private lives, has costs attached to it, and we are ready, I think, in the 90s to move towards a better balance. Because I think many of my contemporaries, at least, are convinced that there are trade-offs. You know you can’t have this unlimited freedom without there being long-run costs. What was that Joplin song, you know, “Freedom is but another word for nothing left to lose”. And that was sung in the 60s, and I think we’re beginning to appreciate the meaning of it.

Heffner: Yes, but let’s go back and deal with that principal question…you say it’s a good question. Can you move back in that way? We’re talking about our sense of the nature of human nature. We’re talking about our sense of morality, our sense of a family obligation. How do you move back once you’ve moved away from that? Or don’t you have to solve your…the problems you identify, in another way?

Hewlitt: I don’t think that you can put all of your stress on slowing down divorce. I think you’ve also got to have a set of programs that helps the children of divorce deal with their reality, and I, you know, have some prescriptions there. But I think it’s wrong to see history as somehow cumulative and remorselessly, you know, heading off in just one direction. If you look back through this century and just look at the role of women, you will find that they were really very free and very career-oriented in the 20s and 30s. Then came the Depression and the Second World War, and guess what, we got the 1950s, where women were more domestic than they’ve ever been before, having twice as many children as they did in the 30s and the 20s. So I think it’s wrong to think of this kind of cumulative, you know, dynamic in history. It is a cyclical business. I think perhaps we can look to a decade where balance and maybe a resurgence of, you know, emphasis on children, is going to be a kind of glamorous objective for this next generation. You know, remember that cover story in Time magazine, just this last summer…it was called “Return to the Simple Life”?

Heffner: Yes.

Hewlitt: And it had a bicycle, you know, and a pair of, I think, trekking boots on the front. What that was about was some new surveys that Time magazine had commissioned, which showed that the, you know, 30-something generation and the 20-something generation really were not that interested in maximizing income any more. They really did want those children and that home. They did want a kind of more complete domestic life than they had seen for twenty years.

Heffner: You know, as you say these things I can only sit here and hope that you are being prophetic. But you point out that in a time of depression there was a return to the values of the hearth and home. Now it would seem that so many people have gotten themselves into a position in which they must make more, as wages are not keeping…

Hewlitt: Yes.

Heffner: …up with the needs. Now, let me, let me go back to…well, you’ve talked about Time magazine and in the Time magazine interview with you in August 1991, at the very end the question was asked of you, “Beyond parenting leave”…because you press very hard…

Hewlitt: Yes.

Heffner: …for parenting leave of considerable dimensions…

Hewlitt: Yes.

Heffner: …for both parents I would…

Hewlitt: Yes.

Heffner: …I would say…

Hewlitt: Absolutely.

Heffner: What do you think we need to do, and you say, “We need access to free prenatal care. Companies should provide flex-time and compress schedules for working parents so that they can have more time with their families. We need mortgage subsidies for young families and tougher enforcement of child support laws. We should throw “sand”, as you suggest, “in the machinery of divorce…Force parents to think about what they are doing. We must hold parents accountable for the welfare of their children and ourselves responsible for the care of America’s youth”. And then you say, and this, to me, is the key, of your book: “Otherwise we will not make it. Our standard of living will steadily decline and the truth is only a society that cherishes its children deserves to thrive”.

Hewlitt: Yes.

Heffner: And I’m still, I must admit, so puzzled that a nation of smart, smart businessmen…

Hewlitt: Right.

Heffner: …have not understood that and you still have to explain that to me.

Hewlitt: Yes.

Heffner: Outside of the context of a decade of greed…

Hewlitt: Right. Well, you know, this summer the Harvard Business Review asked me to participate in a survey of businessmen in 25 industrial countries. Having rounded up all of these opinions, one enormously important bottom line fro this study was that the number one reason which was going to make these firms either make it or break them into the next century, was the quality of their human capital. In other words, the Japanese, the Germans, you know, all of these countries know that it’s the quality of our people that is going to make it in this fiercely competitive international marketplace of ours. Because you know in this modern world, everything else, whether it’s capital or technology, you know, can just shoot around countries at a very rapid rate. The only thing that’s truly your own these days is your people. And yet when you go to, say, our education budget, or our child health budget, you see it being, you know, squeezed and slashed and undermined at every turn. This figure of 52% reduction in the money spent on children is really an appalling figure in a country that has so many problems in its young people. Just one figure, Richard, right now 23% of our 17, 18 year olds drop out of school. The figure in Japan is just 6%, the figure in Germany is just 8%. Obviously, you know, we have an enormous handicap as we head into the 21st century, which is why I use these economic reasons to try and galvanize those people in Washington so that they don’t shoot themselves in the foot.

Heffner: Yes, but talking about shooting themselves in the foot, which we seem to have been doing…

Hewlitt: Yes.

Heffner: …come back again to my first question…

Hewlitt: Yes.

Heffner: …and your last chapter…

Hewlitt: Yes.

Heffner: Is this the necessary price of freedom? Is this what we’re doing? We avoid the authoritarianism of the Japanese school system…

Hewlitt: Yes.

Heffner: …and we spend a good deal of time comparing the freedoms that are encouraged, the development of a free personality, encouraged by our school system…

Hewlitt: Yes.

Heffner: …is that the necessary trade-off of freedom and would you trade off those freedoms for the order and the organization and the attention paid to what you call human capital over these other countries?

Hewlitt: You know what I would do, Richard? I would take the Western European model, actually, not the Japanese one…their children are not seen as private property…I mean in our free country we see children as our private consumption good…you know, child rearing is an expensive, private hobby in this country. What I would do is take the French view or the Italian view…there children are seen as the greatest national resources, and other people’s children then become important to you. They’re a collective responsibility, if you like. You know way back in 1953 Charles DeGaulle, who wasn’t exactly, you know, a raving Liberal, he said that having a child for a woman, is a little like doing military service for a man. Both were important for the greatness of the nation and we’ve got to get out there and really support this.

Heffner: Boy, are you going to get into further trouble with feminism for saying that.

Hewlitt: (Laughter) Yes, but you see that is what is missing here. You know, taking some time to look after a child is seen as some frivolous choice, a private choice like a second vacation or getting a manicure, or something or other. We do not see this as valuable, kind of socially responsible acts that redound to all of our collected good.

Heffner: Yes, but you see, you’re putting your emphasis again now, as you do in the book…

Hewlitt: Yes.

Heffner: …upon our children as a resource…

Hewlitt: Yes.

Heffner: …an investment…

Hewlitt: Yes.

Heffner: …and the, the fly in the ointment there is that as they grow older, our children…maybe a change is coming about now…our children have not taken on the responsibility for the…for their parents, but rather that state has, or through Social Security, if you would, and isn’t that why such a large percentage of the social welfare funds that we do expend go to the elderly? Now how do you…how do you bring about a reversal there?

Hewlitt: I don’t think that the average person has grasped this connection between the welfare of children and their own paycheck ten years down the road. And that’s the connection that I make in this book. You see there are two costs if we neglect our children. Firstly, we don’t have good workers so our industry is not competitive so we all are less well off next decade. Secondly, these throwaway children, like Brian, are actually very expensive, because we do get to pay for things like, you know, $43,000 a year for prison, or whatever. Each throwaway child is costing you and me, now, as taxpayers, $300,000 per lifetime. So I present these connections that you and I are immediately involved in if we are living in this nation. But I also make the moral case, Richard, and I’m very glad that that has also, you know, threaded through this conversation. Because I do think that in the richest nation on earth, we simply should not have 340,000 children homeless or 30% of two-year-olds not getting measles shots. Hubert Humphrey, you know, 20 years ago said that “A nation should be judged by how it treats those vulnerable citizens in the sunrise and in the sunset of life”. Well, we do a good job, now, in the sunset. But we do a simply appalling job at the beginning of life.

Heffner: And if you had to put on the, your prophet’s hat, not as an advocate now…

Hewlitt: Yes.

Heffner: …honestly, but as a prophet, what do you think that we will do? Will we more rather than less continue our present path and go into decline for that reason? Because that’s what you’re saying the connection is…

Hewlitt: Yes.

Heffner: Or will we make the changes that you demand?

Hewlitt: Well, some of the connections in my book are seeping through in Washington. Jay Rockefeller’s commission this last spring which advocated, really in a bipartisan way, a whole package of measures for children. That got a lot of attention. And I think if someone like Cuomo were to run, these programs would be on the front burner. So I think an awful lot depends on the nature of the 1992 fight and whether there is an alternative vision presented as to where this great nation can go.

Heffner: Well, I particularly appreciate your joining me today. “When the Bough Breaks” is a devastatingly threatening book…the cost of neglecting our children. You and I at sometime have to go back to that question of if this is associated with freedom…

Hewlitt: Yes.

Heffner: …must we diminish our freedoms to remedy this…the descriptions…

Hewlitt: Yes.

Heffner: …that you have in this book. But, thank you very much for joining me today, Sylvia Ann Hewlitt.

Hewlitt: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, our guest, what she has had to say, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.