Children deserve a safe and nurturing environment

Published 9:45 am Tuesday, April 28, 2015

My Point of View by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

The Star Tribune’s Jeff Strickler recently wrote an article entitled “No helmets or seatbelts? Baby Boomers lived dangerously by today’s standards.” His point seems to be that he and his contemporaries had much more adventurous childhoods than today’s heavily protected children, yet they somehow survived it.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

I’ve read similar sentiments directed at my generation which followed in the sneaker treads of free-range Boomers. We didn’t wear bike helmets either, and we rode in the back seats of cars without car seats or seatbelts, and we survived. Most of us.

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But consider that the accidental death rate for kids age 1 to 14 is now about half what it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s. What that means is, if we hadn’t made any progress in reducing accidental childhood deaths since I was a kid, we would be burying about 6,000 more children in the U.S. every year. And if we had the same accidental child death rate as in 1950, we would triple those extra deaths.

So there’s that.

Early deaths due to accidents, though dropping, are not equal opportunity. Tease apart current numbers a little further, and it becomes clear that U.S. children living in counties with high concentrations of child poverty (15 percent or higher) have about double the accidental death rate of children who live in areas with low concentrations of child poverty (less than 5 percent).

This is just one way in which children in high poverty areas are at a disadvantage in life chances relative to their more affluent counterparts. Though the 1950s was comparatively more dangerous for kids in some ways, it was a time of many good things, like high civic engagement, low income inequality, more mixed income neighborhoods, and a greater sense that all children were “our kids.” In that regard, a lot has changed for the worse.

Sixty years later, participation in civic organizations has steeply declined, residential segregation by income has grown substantially and people in wealthy census tracts are less aware of the multiple obstacles that many kids in poverty experience.

Robert Putnam explores these changes in his new book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.” He found that in measure after measure, kids from higher income families are pulling away from their peers in lower income families, and he presents the gradually widening results in a series of scissor-shaped charts.

While all groups of parents may be more protective on average than those in the middle of last century, parents with more education and higher incomes are investing resources in their children much more intensively. And for good reason — cognitive science shows the long-term benefits of “serve and return” interactions with children from the earliest stages. This type of communication is critical to healthy infant brain development and lays the foundations for acquiring mathematical and verbal skills. There are big socioeconomic gaps in how much highly responsive “face time” children get with their parents and other adults overall. Children in higher-income homes have a growing edge from the starting gate.

These advantages only get wider as children grow. An impact of increasing residential segregation by income is that schools are becoming more segregated as well. Some wealthier families change residences so they can place their kids in the “right” schools, whereas lowincome families are less able to move to more expensive neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, high schools in low income areas have fewer academic opportunities, more discipline problems, lower graduation rates and higher teacher turnover.

These factors partly explain why the achievement gap between children in high- and low-income families is increasing. Compared to what it was for people my age (approaching 40), the gap has grown 30 to 40 percent larger among kids born in 2001.

We often place responsibility for these achievement gaps on schools’ doorsteps, but that does little to address the two underlying factors which have the greatest impact on student outcomes: parent education level and parent income.

There are many policy strategies we could adopt to reduce these gaps. The most important place to focus resources is on early childhood, ages 0 to 5. Key investments should include home visit programs like Connecticut’s Child First initiative and making preschool and center day care more widely available and affordable. Investments at this age have been shown to yield the biggest positive returns for the children themselves and for society.

We have a moral obligation to once again consider anyone’s kids “our kids.” They all deserve safe and nurturing environments which maximize their future potential. Things like tall teeter-totters on blacktop are better consigned to history, but we should renew a civic spirit and commitment to the whole that we have lost in our pursuit of individualism. Our democracy and economy will be stronger for it.


Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party.