parasailingThis article by KARA board member David Strand was first published in 2009 and is even more true today.

Human development labored for centuries in a struggle between early science and ancient superstition. Superstition won many battles, typified by religious leaders who forced Galileo to recant his belief that the earth revolved the sun instead of the opposite. Eventually his beliefs were vindicated and one noted contemporary scientist Stephen Hawking says, “Galileo was responsible for the birth of modern science.” That doesn’t mean that superstition no longer affects human attitudes about science. It does.

No nation is equal to the United States in scientific achievement. Its universities are prodigious engines of research, its scientists unmatched in capturing Nobel prizes, and its corporations are leaders in communications, biology, computer and medical advances. The bad news for American kids is that they live in a nation that neglects to apply many basic social science truths for its most vulnerable citizens. The child and family principles that have been discovered to work by American researchers find their routine implementation in other countries, but tragically, not here. It’s a reality that is devastating for America’s future, its children.

It starts with the unborn. Every other developed country provides universal pre-natal care for expecting moms. This is an essential human decency practice in order to prevent unnecessary infant mortality. As a result, the United States is a shameful 36th in the world, with death rates for its tiniest citizens double what is achieved in northern Europe, where along with Japan, infant mortality is the lowest.

If we just had only the average rate of Europe, more than 10,000 kids would be saved each year. This isn’t rocket science. It is simply implementing what is fundamental and right; provide moms and the babies they carry with preventative health proven essential for successful births.

Next comes the adjustment to life for the healthy newborns. Mountains of brain development research, much of it generated by U.S. scientists, prove that the most important year is the baby’s first. Every modern nation in the world except one, provides universal maternity leave for working parents so that their babies get the best possible start in life. In northern Europe this means both moms and dads can stay home from work for a year or more, and have incomes supplemented and their jobs held for their return.

Norway provides the “Cadillac plan” by paying moms and dads to take care of their children for the first two years of life. This investment is essentially risk free, since research confirms that parents are the most effective care-givers to new infants.

Following generous maternity leave, when working parents return to their jobs, these same countries provide for out of home pre-school child care. These are nonprofit organizations staffed by professionals trained in child development and most commonly are administered by the public education ministries. Affluent families usually pay modestly for this service, but sliding scale policies make it affordable for all and even at no cost for low income families. The reason nearly all modern nations do this is that research has shown that kids with high quality pre-school care are ready to learn when they enter the K-12 systems. In America where pre-school care is a patch work program often staffed by unskilled workers, and out of reach for many low-income families, fully a third of children are not ready to learn when they arrive at kindergarten and nearly all never recover.

Negotiating the treacherous path from infancy to adulthood is best not left untended by enlightened societies. Prodigious research proves that helping pre-teens and early teens avoid unwanted pregnancy and the scourge of sexually transmitted disease is achieved by teaching them universal comprehensive reproductive education. America doesn’t do it. This is an example of neglect of our children that yields unusual grief and unconscionable adult dereliction of responsibility.

The facts of recent demographic studies are mind boggling. In 2008, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention shocked the nation with the news that fully a fourth of America’s teen girls now have a sexually transmitted disease, with rates still rising. Earlier the Alan Guttmacher Institute announced results of a study comparing teens in the U.S. with Great Britain, Canada, France and Sweden. By far U.S. teenagers have the highest rates of Sexually Transmitted Disease (STDs), pregnancy, births and abortions. For example, the teen pregnancy rate of the U.S. is four times the French rate, three times the Swedish rate and twice as high as Great Britain and Canada. America’s policy of turning its back on our youth is nothing short of shocking in its irresponsibility.

Some of the most expensive and time consuming research involves the measurement of income and social mobility among classes. Its methodology is longitudinal research following the outcomes of successive generations of cohorts from child to adulthood journeys. Recently a number of these decades’ long studies have concerned themselves with assessing access to opportunity, including country to country comparisons. Contrary to generally held opinions of having the gold standard of equal opportunity, the United States faired poorly. Surprisingly, the U.S. was found to have relative immobility at both high and low income segments. Wealthy families produced wealthy offspring, while families in poverty produced generations persistently poor. Peer countries consistently produced greater income mobility, with the nations of northern Europe achieving the highest mobility. According to The Economist, “Nordic countries have almost completely snapped the link between the earnings of parents and children at and near the bottom. That is not at all true of America.”

What is going on that causes America to lag far behind its peers in providing children with basic protections against early mortality, with healthy body and brain development, with fundamental preventive skills to avoid STDs and children having children, and finally with fair and equal access to basic opportunity? The brutal truth is that other nations have seized the knowledge of human behavior research, often produced by American scientists, and applied it. For some reason, we have not.

The resource every other modern country uses to address the crucial issues of health and education for children and families, government policy and programs, the United States mostly renounces. One likely reason is revealed in the platform of one of America’s main political parties. The most recent version of the Republican Party Platform was trumpeted at their 2008 convention in St. Paul, Minnesota where John McCain was nominated for president. Under “Protecting our Families” it states “the two most effective forces in reducing crime and other social ills are strong families and caring communities”. Claiming that “government bureaucracy is no longer a credible approach in helping those in need”, the platform proposes the work of “faith based organization, which tend to have a greater degree of success than others in dealing with problems such as substance abuse and domestic violence”.

This strange American phobia for social science advances so faithfully applied by our modern peers mirrors an enormous gap in superstitious beliefs. Three of four Americans believe in the existence of the Devil and hell. The mean for this superstitious position for other modern nations is only one in five (Changing Values and Beliefs in 85 Countries, Halman, Inglehart, Diez-Medrano, Luijkx, Moreno and Basanez). The only countries in the world where the belief in the Devil and hell is higher than here are Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Morroco, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania and Turkey.

Successive generations of healthy and educated children don’t just grow on trees. Fundamental research and credible scientific inquiry are the tools routinely implemented by enlightened societies. A superstitious America is not among them. And our children are the unfortunate victims. For those kids we leave behind and exposed to early mortality, we have created a special kind of hell.

4 Comments

  1. Fascinating and provocative discussion, but the emphasis on “science phobia” is misplaced, and perhaps intellectually dishonest. The article is an effective brief for why a quite literal “nanny state” might have significant benefits, but there are legitimate social, economic and philosophical arguments why the government should not be paying for people to take care of their own children. The policies described would naturally make more sense in a Northern European culture than in the U.S., where a policy of paying for parents to stay home for the first two years of childcare would immediately be exploited by many seeking not to work through producing an endless stream of children. Similarly, just because the government may do a better job educating children about sex than some parents doesn’t mean that this is a proper function of government. Probably crime could be reduced if the government took over child rearing of lower income children entirely; I’m certain social science research would bear this out. Does aversion to such a policy prove “science phobia”? This article advocates extreme utilitarian measures without acknowledging some important problems.

  2. Thanks for Jack Marshall’s comment and for the opportunity to respond. His is a popular position which largely accounts for the lack of recognition that the United States in fact has the world’s largest “nanny state”. The clients of our “nanny state” are powerful special interests instead of children and young families, who either can’t or don’t vote and who have no economic, and therefore no political power. It should be noted that that not only do nations of northern Europe, but rather all other developed nations routinely implement versions of the human decency “nanny state”. Our special interest version explains why we also maintain the most hostile environment for children among all our peers, even those, for example Canada, who also have diverse populations.
    The dictionary defines phobia as “an irrational, excessive and persistent fear of some particular situation or thing.” In my view phobia and superstition go together. Ancient clerics feared scientific revelation that unsettled their superstitious beliefs. A superstitious America believes that the poor are responsible for their plight and social science is not to be trusted. As long as that persists, we will continue to incubate at-risk children and lead the world in locking up our citizens. By the way, operating those prisons by private corporations is also a highly successful special interest.
    Was it Barney Google who said, “you pays your money, and you makes your choices”?

  3. I guess that it’s all about how one frames the issue. What some consider extreme others consider a basic civic function. How can we measure or or put meaningful definition to what Jack is calling extreme?

    The indices that have been used to measure the quality of life among the industrialized nations works for the rest of the world and I think here also.

    What made the U.S. a leader in all the quality of life indices among the 24 industrialized nations for twenty five years?

    It’s pretty clear that a great school system educated our children, who then became a powerful work force & great entrepreneurs, and also a very capable citizenry.

    Or as Pliny said 2500 years ago, “what you do do your children, they will do to your society”

    Today, the U.S. has 5% of the worlds population & 25% of the worlds prison population. There were 13 million prison and jail releases in the nation last year. 25% of America’s graduating high school seniors are functionally illiterate (along with America’s dismal graduation rates).

    Some would argue, that if this nation suffers from extremism, it is the extremism of not caring for its children, and that spending billions on prisons and jails while defunding schools and youth programs is extremely poor public policy.

  4. Pingback: Why Schools Fail

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