Lawrence Aber

When the Bough Breaks, Part II

VTR Date: December 5, 2001

Dr. Lawrence Aber continues the discussion of child and family policy.


GUEST: Dr. Lawrence Aber
VTR: 12/05/01

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of a series of programs on what hopefully civilized and responsible citizens will do when “the wind blows, the cradle rocks, the bough breaks, and down come our babies, cradles and all.”

Joining me again today on what I hope may become a series of Open Mind programs dealing expertly with our children as well as children around the world and the various trauma they face … terrorism and war, poverty, abuse, debilitating diseases, parental and societal indifference or ignorance, is Dr. Lawrence Aber, Professor of Public Health at Columbia University, Director of its Nation Center for Children In Poverty and Co-Director of its Institute for Child and Family Policy.

Dr. Aber, I want to ask you, picking up where we were last time, you had mentioned …I don’t think you knew how seriously I would grab at the mention … you mentioned the media in this. And again I’d like to come back to the question of media generally. We’ve talked about poverty, haven’t talked about it enough in terms of its impact upon children. And there are so many other areas: now, we’ve talked about violence, war … what about the media … that kind of violence?

ABER: Right. Well, you know very well that there…this has been a controversy, both a scientific and a social controversy for a number of years in the United States. For a long time it was hard to prove that… children witnessing violent events on television had any significant effect on their development. And the, the jury is still out on that. There’s, there’s still plenty of professional controversy about that. But I think one of the things that we do know is that… whether it’s exposure to the television programming itself, or the family and social conditions that lead to children spending a lot of time watching it. Or a combination of the two, that profile is associated with children becoming more aggressive… over time.

And so … in other words we don’t know whether it’s actually watching the programming itself that’s causal, we do know that when children don’t have other things that they’re doing with their lives, don’t have adults who are managing how much they’re watching and of what, that combined with the watching it, is associated with a situation that isn’t right.

So, the reason … I’m, I’m not trying to play cute science with you about this cause and effect stuff. If it’s the programming itself the burden appears to fall on the film industry, or the television industry, etc., etc. If it’s that we haven’t structured the experiences that … and, and the supervision and the support, such that children aren’t spending a lot of time doing that, then the responsibility falls somewhere else.

HEFFNER: But suppose the responsibility falls somewhere else, suppose you can’t point to the film director, or to the television executive and say “you are to be the nanny of our nation. You are to be caring more for our children.” Whatever the combination is, it seems to be a fairly lethal combination.

ABER: Oh, I think that’s right. And I … one of the things that we know does lead children to be more aggressive and violent themselves is very, very harsh, punitive and infringing on abusive physical punishment. There’s very clear evidence that that’s the case.

One of the things that that does is it affects how children interpret ambiguous situations. Let me give you an example … this is an example of how we, we studied this with children, but it’s in a real life situation. We’ll tell children a story that John is coming into a cafeteria and sits down next to other kids and somebody knocks a, a glass of milk on to him. Or they’re in a playground and he gets hit in the head with a ball. And then we ask children, why did that happen? Some children make the spontaneous attribution that it was done to hurt them. Some children make the spontaneous attribution that it was an accident and seek information to disvalidate that … invalidate that. And some children automatically begin to seek information, to find out what that’s about.

If you are being physically abused, or watching repeated incidents of violence are associated with and probably cause … causal of what’s called “hostile attribution bias” … you’ll walk around in a world seeing harm where it may not be there. And how those experiences get into the mind and expectations of children is through so many channels, but it’s so important. It’s…it’s just makes all the difference in the world. It’s in those first few seconds of the spontaneous attribution of something that most aggressive responses occur.

HEFFNER: And the teaching that they experience. At home and in school? I was at a session at Teachers College the other day and someone got up and talked about the way the schools were at a time when perhaps in the thirties and the forties there was such a participation in a extracurricular …

ABER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … way of teachers who parented children …

ABER: That’s right.

HEFFNER: … who provided so much for them.

ABER: That’s right.

HEFFNER: … that doesn’t happen any longer. This is an economic deal for the most part, and we refuse to pay teachers what they should be paid, and they, in turn, perhaps, not refuse, but are not participating in children’s lives as they did. Now we talk about latch key children.

ABER: Right.

HEFFNER: Where are we going with this?

ABER: Well, I, I think you raise a number of issues with that question. I would agree with you that there’s been some kind of normative shift in the implicit social contract between parents, teachers and children over the last thirty, forty years. I wouldn’t be sitting at this table if teachers didn’t decide to do more than nine to three. They were instrumental in me being on a different path. I still think there are plenty of teachers who want that. And you point to salary and a variety of other things. It would be a very … it…it’s a long conversation to ask what’s shifted that normative balance. But even among the teachers who are there now, we have a quite explicit academic and cognitive curriculum in our schools. We don’t have nearly as an explicit social, emotional curriculum. Children spend so much time in school and they learn how to regulate their emotions. They learn how to behave interpersonally with others. And teachers, whether they need to or not are teachers of social emotional learning. And there’s now very good research that teachers vary in their ability to handle that skillfully, we don’t train teachers very much in that … we call it comportment and behavior and all that kind of stuff. When really we’re teaching children how to feel and to think in social and emotion situations. And it’s a vast area of untapped potential that I think could actually change how teachers feel about their work, and certainly how children grow.

HEFFNER: And parents? The absentee ones?

ABER: The, the absentee parents is a … boy, what a, what a tough situation. The, the child care situation in America, both before children enter school and after children are in school is an enormously challenging one. And we do a lot of work with Federal and state governments on planning child care services and programs and policies. And there’s no doubt in mind that we under invest socially in child care. Both pre-school and after school. Back a, a couple of years ago, I was on a National Academy of Sciences panel on the future of child care. And we estimated that if every child in America got decent quality child care then, it could cost Americans about $150 billion dollars a year. But we were spending about $60 billion dollars a year. Of that $60 billion dollars a year, $45 billion was spent by parents, and $15 by Federal, state and local government and private foundations. That number’s grown now. We haven’t done it since. But let’s say… for… discussion’s purposes that it’s up to $100 billion dollars a year. I’m sure it’s not. But the, the ratios stay about the same. Parents are paying as much as they can for child care, in general. Parents are required to work now. Not just for preference, but the welfare reform bill requires parents to work, whether they’re low income … and, and we have not made the investments in pre-school care and after school care that are required in light of our society’s commitment that parents work.

HEFFNER: Now you’re talking about underprivileged children. No?

ABER: I…I’m talking about all children.

HEFFNER: All children?

ABER: And, and those figures covered all children. Under … low income children actually, if they’re very, very, very poor and they’re eligible for highly subsidized high quality programs, they get pretty good care. But then if you’re not the most disadvantaged among the disadvantaged, and then the working poor, and the low moderate income, they’re at most risk for not being able to pay for, or be eligible for the best quality care. Then once you start getting into upper middle class families, they have the financial resources to pay for it. But it’s still a juggling act. But we actually have kind of a U-shaped curve of, of risk. And…and it’s, it’s not the most disadvantaged, but the near disadvantaged and moderate income that’s having the hardest time with child care.

HEFFNER: Same story about medical care.

ABER: It is a very similar story …

HEFFNER: Hospital care.

ABER: … about medical care. And it’s a kind of a story about the last twenty years and class relationships in America. We … if we’re going to make societal level investments in children and families adequate to the task, the interests of middle class Americans and the interests in low…of low income Americans need to be brought together much more powerfully. And we can’t allow wedges to be driven between them and in my opinion that’s what’s happened over the last twenty years. And, and nothing short of common interests across middle class families and lower income families in wanting the right things and getting the right things for their kid…kids is going to be adequate to the task in a larger political way.

HEFFNER: Have you come to the conclusion that child care in the best sense of the word is possible as something purchased?

ABER: That’s a great and deep question. And I, I think the pragmatic part of me says that we live in a market economy. And there is not a viable way of arranging for the development and distribution of child care except through market means. And, yes, I think we can pay non-parental care givers to provide good and high quality care for children. France does it, Italy does it. There are countries with fewer national resources than we do. So I know it can be done. I don’t see a more practical way to do it in this country. But the task is going to be hard.

HEFFNER: Why can they do it? Why do they do it? And we don’t.

ABER: Hmmm. I think at least three reasons. The first is that Italy and France did not have the racial, ethnic diversity of this country when in the fifties and sixties, as women were entering the labor force they made big national investments in these programs. So they were investing in “us”. Americans during that time, with the legacy of racism, saw Americans investing in “them”. And it’s an oversimplified argument, but it’s … I think … I think the role race plays in making it hard for Americans to invest in public solutions to children cannot be underestimated. I think the second reason is that, and this goes back to something we talked about the first time … on the spectrum of what are individual responsibilities and what are social or community responsibilities? They tend more toward the social and community responsibility ethos in their entire national character …

HEFFNER: In France and Italy?

ABER: In France and Italy. And we tend more toward the individual. So in our country it’s more a private, family affair. In their country, it’s a more community affair. And you put those two things together and, and they create an energy that’s bigger than either one alone, and that’s the third factor. That you put these two things…those two things together and we just have such strong policy preference to think of it as an individual solution.

HEFFNER: You had to make a bet … what’s your bet as to where we’re going?

ABER: In child care?


ABER: Oh, I, I …

HEFFNER: In, in the whole matter of our care for our children, not just child care.

ABER: Okay.

HEFFNER: The way we Americans …

ABER: I’m…I told you in the first program …

HEFFNER: You’re an optimist.

ABER: … that my wife calls me “doom and gloom” …


ABER: But I’m really an optimist. I, I … a couple of things are clear. Children are living longer in America. We all are. I mean, you know, it’s a … children are learning more in America. We have made advances for children over the last century … and very significant advances in the last decade. So, for instance, in the early nineties, one in four children in America lived below the poverty line. Today, one in six do. That’s still the highest in, among major Western industrialized nations. But it’s a, a third better than it was just ten years ago. It is possible to do these things. And I’ll, I’llpoint to two other things. Somewhere between 2030 and 2040 in America… the age composition of our society in, in the majority of states will favor the elderly as much or more than it does in Florida today.

HEFFNER: Impossible.

ABER: It is true. By the year 2030, somewhere between 2030, 2040, it depends on how it goes … we will have over 25 states in which the elderly are as prominent a part of our state life as in Florida today. Households with children are a shrinking number of households in America. So, demography and electoral politics … parents are not as big a part of the electoral public as they were. Children are not as big a part of the population. And that translates into power and votes. However, children will remain 100% of our future. So, we have to get smarter about investing in children and families. And if we don’t, we’re eating our seed. It is … just no question about it.

HEFFNER: So interesting you … you, you turn around in the middle there …

ABER: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … you say, it’s the old folks who are going to have the political power, the numerically most important, but then going from a description you go to “we better do something” …

ABER: That’s right.

HEFFNER: … different.

ABER: Yes.

HEFFNER: Different grounds.

ABER: Different grounds, but I, I would point to a couple things. Today … 20 or 30 years ago four to five workers supported every retired person in our Social Security system. Today, it’s about 2 and a half workers to every retired person. The health and productivity of the younger generation is the public resource that will support the older generation. And so, it’s not just moral good that would be a reason for elderly people to become champions of children. It is enlightened self-interest to use deTocqueville’s term.

HEFFNER: Yeah. No, no I, I very well understand that. And when you use the phrase “eating our seed”, that’s, that’s a very powerful phrase. But this is what we’ve been doing. We haven’t stopped doing it. We’re doing it more. The, the school bond issues that continue to be defeated because there are more and more older people in the community, and they won’t vote to increase their taxes.

ABER: I think the facts are very important to get right. And I disagree with …

HEFFNER: You’re correcting me, then.

ABER: I’m disagreeing with you.

HEFFNER: You don’t have to be that diplomatic.

ABER: I’m disagreeing with you. The percentage of our gross domestic product that we spend on children and family services, especially for low income and across the board hasn’t changed very much in the last forty years. The composition of it has changed. We spend less directly on services. And we re-distribute it more by taxes. So, the biggest anti-poverty program in America today is not welfare, it’s not Headstart. It’s a thing called the “Earned Income Tax Credit.” The Earned Income Tax Credit helps low income workers make more money working in low wage jobs. And there are many other tax approaches. So you…you’re asking about a kind of … will the market systems, will money provide care? There are changes in our underlying economy. We’ve stayed fairly flat in our total societal … monetary investment. We’ve taken more time away from parents, and time poverty affects a lot of kids. We’ve made life choppier. We have kids all over the place and they don’t have the chance for the same sustained deep relationships. And children are facing more risks. But the investments are about the same. The problem is that have to go up, given the other things we’re changing. Not stay the same.

HEFFNER: Time poverty.

ABER: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Interesting expression.

ABER: Yeah.

HEFFNER: What does it mean?

ABER: Parents are spending less time with their kids. Kids are spending less time with their parents. Actually, with … and… it’s important to say “parents” cause on average, that’s true. With Moms it’s been going down because women are in the labor force more. With Dads, recently, it’s been going up a little bit. And we may be at a tipping point in gender relations where it is now much more normative for, for fathers to say, “I have to leave to take my child to the soccer game. I have to leave to take my child to the nurse or the doctor.” Woman are still spending a lot more time in home care and child care than men are, but men are increasing their investment. But on average, we’re not spending enough time.

HEFFNER: Putting them together, dad and mom, less time.

ABER: That’s right. Putting them together, dad and mom, less time. And then when you combine the, the rate of marital dissolution, it becomes even more challenging. Children are more likely to live in a single parent household today than they were 20, 30 years ago. And that reduces the amount of time that the parent, the residential parent has to work and shop and cook and take care of the kids.

HEFFNER: The kibbutz … where it didn’t seem to make all that much difference, as long as there was care …

ABER: Right.

HEFFNER: You don’t accept that idea.

ABER: Um … I think that non-parental care can be good for kids … excuse me, I think it depends on the quality of the care. We now have good scientific evidence that the quality of non-parental care does affect children’s social and emotional development and their cognitive development. What do I mean by “quality”? Young children need adults who adapt what they’re going to do to where the kid is at. Contingency. They need adults who create safe, interesting time and space for them. And they need adults who are not so distressed and pre-occupied that they ignore or lash out at the kids. And, and we have enormous variation in the quality of non-parental care in this country. There is some non-parental care that meets all three of those criteria. And there’s some non-parental care that doesn’t. And what we need to do is … if we want to improve quality … what McDonald’s means by “improving quality” is there’s no variation. [Laughter] We reduce the variation “up”. And that’s what we have to do in America. We have to reduce the variation “up”.

HEFFNER: You’re talking about non-parental care. And parental care?

ABER: Parental care …

HEFFNER: I know it’s getting less and less.

ABER: It’s getting less and less, but it’s still critical and… the kinds of things that 30 and 40 years ago severely challenged parents’ ability to take care of their children remain fundamentally the same, maybe marginally different distributions. Children … parents who experienced significant abuse and neglect themselves as a child … parents who are severely depressed. Parents who have severe literacy problems are parents who are especially challenged in taking care of their children. And that’s been … that was true 40 years ago. It’s true today. The vast majority of parents don’t experience those challenges. They live with stresses and strains, we can help them more and help them less. They’re basically doing heroic jobs. But the way to improve many things for children is again improve … narrow the variation in quality “up”. And there’s a paradox in America. The paradox is that child and family policies and programs that is for everybody, gets the political support. But the ones who need it the most… can’t thrive with just the…that average support. And we, we need to find ways of creating the public will that allows us to invest in supporting the parenting of especially vulnerable parents.

HEFFNER: Is there any place, geographical or economic or whatever, whatever slice of American life you want to take, where something more, rather than less is happening along those lines?

ABER: Yeah. We publish a version called … of a report called “Map and Track”, and if it’s not inappropriate, I’d give people our website …

HEFFNER: Go ahead.

ABER: … … National Center for Children in And it’s published every two years and we describe state investments in young children and parents in relationship to need. The majority of states have invested more in children in selected areas over the last six years since we’ve been doing this series. So, some states that I’ll point out … North Carolina has initiated a program called “Smart Start” which is a quite remarkable early intervention program. The State of Vermont has developed indicators of children’s well being in all of the localities in Vermont and made public decisions about where to devote investments based on need, on those indicators. And community’s ability to move those indicators of children’s well being in the right direction. It’s called “results based accountability”. States are engines of innovation and discovery in this country. And people think about the Federal government as the major government role. State government has been enormously creative in the last decade. The problem in that they are constrained in resources often and especially during this period of recession, the majority of states are facing state budget deficits and it’s going to be hard. Often kids programs are among the easiest to cut.

HEFFNER: One minute remaining … take the time in that one minute to repeat that website.

ABER: … the National Center for Children in We’re hot linked to a bunch of other websites. And in the last 30 seconds of the one minute, if I had one message to your viewers it would be that a parent’s and citizen’s role in transforming our public will for children is my greatest hope and I, I think the most realistic chance we have for making a difference for kids.

HEFFNER: That’s a good way to end the program. And when you see your wife, you’ll say you were not “doom and gloom” you were… positive.

ABER: Thanks very much.

HEFFNER: Thank you for joining me again.

ABER: Thank you very much, I really appreciate it.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.