’s Children Essay, Research Paper
March 8, 2001
The State of America’s Children: An Integrative Essay
“More and more children are in greater and greater trouble” –James Garbarino
This simple statement, made by James Garbarino in his book Raising Children in a Socially Toxic Environment, concisely and appropriately describes the current state of children and youth in America. Garbarino suggests that children today are being brought up in a socially toxic environment where violence, divorce, racism, addiction, educational failure, poor physical health, and adult emotional problems are just a few of the “toxic” social forces converging on children, robbing them of their innocence and dignity. Moreover, he argues, children who are faced with economic distress and poverty are particularly vulnerable. For them the risks are compounded, as they lack the defenses and supports needed to combat the toxicity surrounding them.
According to the Children’s Defense Fund, 13.5 million children living in America today are poor, and 5.8 million of them are living in extreme poverty, with incomes below half the poverty line. The issues related to poverty – from substandard housing and malnutrition, to inadequate health and child care services, to severe emotional stress and violence – are complex and interconnected. Therefore, attempting to understand the problem and propose possible solutions appears to be an overwhelming task. Garbarino effectively provides a lens through which to view the social forces affecting childhood development. Aletha Huston, on the other hand, in her book Children in Poverty: Child Development and Public Policy, proposes a “child-centered” analysis, which focuses on the child’s healthy development as “a goal in its own right,” rather than as part of a larger social-economic context.
A compromise must be reached between these two perspectives, in order to create a complete picture of the issues affecting children living in poverty, without neglecting the importance of the individual. One successful means of compromise was offered by Urie Bronfenbrenner in 1979, when he introduced the “Ecological Model” of child development. His model, which looks like a bulls-eye, has the child and his or her individual characteristics at its center. The first “ring” around the child is the microsystem, consisting of the child’s immediate surroundings. The next “ring” is the mesosystem, a series of connection between elements of the microsystem. The third “ring” is the exosystem, containing the people and institutions that affect the child indirectly. The final “ring” is the macrosystem, composed of the attitudes and ideologies of society as a whole. In the model all of the layers surrounding the child interact both with each other and with the child. Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model of child development can serve as an effective framework for understanding the impact of health care, homelessness, and violence on children living in poverty, and it can guide for our attempts to improve conditions for children and youth in America.
At the level of the microsystem, quality health care is seen as essential to a child’s physical and mental development. According to Judith A. Chafel, “poor children are much more likely than children who aren’t poor to experience low birth weight, poor nutrition and growth, lack of immunization, poisonings and lead intoxication, risk of injury, and susceptibility to infections and disease.” She claims that the poor health of children living in poverty stems from interrelated causes, including inadequate food, water, and shelter, inadequate provision of medical care, and exposure to environmental hazards in substandard housing. Furthermore, one out of four women go without pre-natal care during the critical first trimester, making them three to six times more likely to deliver a pre-mature, low birth weight baby; increasing the baby’s risk of mental impairment and developmental delay. According to Arloc Sherman, inadequate health care has an adverse impact on the child in school, as untreated ear infections, iron deficiency, and lead poisoning lead to trouble concentrating, aggression, poor motor and mental development, and impaired growth. This is just one example of how two seemingly separate elements of the microsystem (health care and school) interact at the level of the mesosystem in Bronfenbrenner’s model.
While the detrimental effects of inadequate health care on child development can be better understood by interpreting them through the framework of the ecological model, the real strength of the model is that it provides a starting point (or a ring of the bulls-eye to target) for a solution. According to Chafel, many policy makers, educators, and counselors are still unaware of the ways in which poverty influences the health and related educational attainment of children. Therefore, if an effort is made at the level of the macrosystem, by educating politicians and professionals about the importance of health care, many of the school difficulties, cognitive deficiencies, and behavior problems of poor children may be eliminated. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, the first step in combating the ramifications of poverty is to ensure that every child has a “Healthy Start,” that they are insured and receive quality health care, in order to equip them with the physical and mental strength needed to break the cycle of poverty.
Barbara Y. Whitman, in her article “Homeless Families and Their Children: Health, Developmental, and Educational Needs,” advocates a Bronfenbrenner-like approach to the issue of homelessness. She states, “from a social epidemiological perspective, one must view the causes and outcomes of homelessness within the broader framework of a complex web of causation.” On the level of the microsystem, she examines the issues of poor health, environmental hazards, deprivational surroundings, discontinued school attendance, and lack of privacy that accompany life on the streets or in temporary shelters. All of these factors interact with one another and accumulate at the level of the mesosystem. At the level of the exosystem, Whitman explains that the parents themselves are usually unemployed, uneducated, and under emotional distress, causing their interaction with their children to be less than optimal. When homeless parents are under the stress of meeting physical survival needs, their children’s developmental issues are not a priority. (Again, the exosystem is composed of elements which indirectly influence the child). Finally, at the level of the macrosystem, stereotyping and labeling of children by professionals results in attention problems and learning disabilities going untreated, as they are incorrectly attributed to the child’s homelessness.
As Whitman aptly states, “the solutions are not simple, nor is homelessness the only issue.” Many of the solutions she suggests, which are also endorsed by Sherman, must operate at the level of the exosystem, in the form of community organizations and services. There is an obvious need for more low-income permanent housing units, and a more adequate supply of decent temporary shelter, so that families and children do not need to live on the streets. Whitman also argues that the provision of such shelters is “doomed to failure if unaccompanied by educational, vocational, medical, and emotional support, as well as support in parenting.” Whitman’s solution thus draws on Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model by targeting several areas of both the exo- and micro- systems, in order to effectively eradicate the “web of causation” of homelessness.
The problem of violence facing American children and youth is addressed by James Gilligan in his book Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes. In the chapter entitled “The Deadliest Form of Violence is Poverty,” Gilligan follows Bronfenbrenner’s approach by asserting that “trying to understand violent behavior in purely individual terms is impossible and wrong-headed.” He claims that any approach towards a theory violence in our country must begin by looking at “structural violence.” According to Gilligan, “structural violence” is defined as “the increased rates of death and disability suffered by those who occupy the bottom rungs of society,” compared to the lower death rates of those who are above them in social and economic class. The language Gilligan uses itself suggests that violence is an institution – one that is created by the operation of forces at each level of the ecological model – and one that affects each level, including the child at the center. At the level of the microsystem, unemployment breeds violence, as the inability to achieve self-sufficiency is viewed by American society, at the level of the macrosystem, as a deficiency within the individual. These attitudes in our culture cause some individuals living in poverty to feel shameful, causing them to act violently as means of demanding respect. Caretakers who are contemplating suicide, parents who turn violent during domestic disputes, and siblings and friends who turn to gangs for a sense of belonging are all victims of structural violence, who in turn victimize children through their violent acts.
In accordance with Gilligan, Sherman suggests that violence among the poor is a result of isolation and degradation. According to Sherman, “among poor parents with strong support, yelling and slapping are virtually no more common than among the non-poor.” The solution, then, must lie within the micro-, exo- and macro- systems. Community organizations at the level of the exosystem can initiate mentoring, parent outreach, and conflict resolution programs to allow neighbors, family members, and peers at the level of the microsystem to provide each other with support. At the level of the macrosystem, our attitudes toward the poor must change, so that we no longer blame families and children for their poverty, but instead recognize the operation of larger socioeconomic forces. By helping families to break the cycle of poverty, rather than turning our backs on them, we will be able to protect our children and youth from violence.
Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model of child development clearly provides an effective framework for examining the complex problem of poverty in America and its implications for our children and youth. America currently ranks sixteenth among twenty-five industrialized nations in its “efforts to lift children out of poverty,” according to the Children’s Defense Fund. We are not doing enough to help OUR children. It is time for Americans to start acknowledging that children living in poverty are just as entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – including their rights to quality health care, adequate living conditions, and a safe environment – as children who are not poor. This means accepting responsibility for the current state of American children and youth. It means facing the hard truth that the child – and the child’s parents – do not stand alone, unaffected by outside forces, completely responsible for their poverty and deserving of their unfortunate situations. They are instead in the middle of a great number of “rings,” boundaries and obstacles, which were created by social and economic institutions and attitudes. The American child living in poverty today did not choose to be born into a socially toxic environment. We must strive to make their surroundings stable, safe, and optimal for their development, so that their own children will not be faced with the same toxins, and fewer and fewer children will be in less and less trouble.