Accommodating child neglect is no substitute for parents | Chris Powell

While the worst of the recent virus epidemic is long past, chronic absenteeism has been soaring in Connecticut’s schools, in cities and suburbs alike, signifying the worsening impoverishment of the population even as the state just went through an election campaign in which the winners insisted that the state is enjoying prosperity.

The absenteeism problem isn’t like the problem of old, with children leaving home but not showing up at school, or getting to school but skipping out early, “playing hooky.” Instead most of today’s absenteeism seems to happen with the knowledge or resignation of overwhelmed, demoralized, or indifferent single parents.

An aggressive response to the problem is being made by an elementary school in Hartford, where, on Wednesdays, which are only half days for classes, if a student isn’t in school on time, staffers call his home to see if he would like to be met and walked to school by a staffer. The practice, called the Walking School Bus, is said to have reduced chronic absenteeism by 10% — not much, but something.

In the old days making sure that one’s children got to school each day was considered a basic obligation of parenthood, and failure was considered child neglect. It also was considered basic decency not to have children before one was prepared to support them.

But as the Walking School Bus program indicates, child neglect today is increasingly accommodated by government, and the more children are neglected at home, the more services government provides them and their parents — without insisting on more responsibility from the parents.

The more that child neglect is accommodated by government, the more incentive parents are given to neglect their children. That is why the rise of single parenting and child neglect correlates so strongly with the rise of welfare benefits for single parents — powerful and perverse incentives for men to abandon the women they impregnate and the children they father, and for those women not to protect themselves against such betrayal.

The premise of government’s perverse incentives here is that it is both cheaper and better to leave children with neglectful parents than for government to take custody of them and raise them in foster or group homes.

This premise is contradicted by the continuing collapse of student proficiency in Connecticut and throughout the country, the persistence of juvenile crime, the growing number of uneducated and unskilled young adults stuck in menial jobs, the inability of employers to fill positions requiring skills, and worsening income inequality.

Of course no matter how children are domiciled, government must ensure that they are protected — fed, housed, and given medical care — and by government itself if their parents fail. But rather than keep adding to its perverse incentives for child neglect, Connecticut could do what jurisdictions elsewhere are doing or considering — conditioning welfare benefits on the recipients’ getting their children to school. People who can’t accomplish that are not fit to be parents, and their children should be put into foster care or group homes.

More accommodation of child neglect is signified by the “baby bonds” Connecticut is undertaking to provide and Massachusetts may provide soon.

“Baby bonds” have state government appropriating and putting money aside in special investment accounts for poor children when they are born, with the money made available to them upon their majority for spending on higher education, starting a business, and similar things.

The premise with “baby bonds” is that many parents won’t take care of their children with their own savings or life insurance.

Another premise is that upon reaching adulthood neglected children will know how to handle money and not spend their inheritance from state government recklessly, as by enrolling in college and then dropping out. (Since higher education is so overpriced and many college degrees so overrated, “baby bonds” for higher education are really subsidies for educators instead.)

The “baby bonds” concept recognizes that everyone should enter adulthood with a little capital and credit. But the concept fails to recognize that the most crucial capital is a decent upbringing by competent parents. Assuring better parenting for children would achieve far more than “baby bonds.”

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer. His views are not necessarily those of the newspaper.