Fixing Kids: Illinois' Programs for Children
Illinois Tax Foundation
I met Jim Nowlan in 1968 when he was running for lieutenant governor with Richard Ogilvie. He was (still is) bright and likeable and perceptive. Such people often have a hard time finding a place in Illinois public life, but Jim found several places, making himself useful as a teacher and administrator and essayist.
One of his gigs was research director of the Illinois Tax Foundation, the non-political arm of the Taxpayers Federation of Illinois, which plausibly called itself the state's most respected non-partisan tax and fiscal policy advocacy organization.
Jim asked me to prepare a major analysis of non-school programs for children in Illinois. I interviewed agency staff, consultants, academics, and advocates, and boiled it down into a 80-some-page document we called Fixing Kids: Illinois' Programs for Children (Illinois Tax Foundation, Springfield, Ill., 1993). I feared at the time that I'd failed to deliver what I’d promised; I was delighted many years later to learn that Jim had not been embarrassed by it.
Did Fixing Kids fix even one kid? No. Its specific prescriptions are now out of date of course and the whole document is not worth reprinting here. The failures I lament in it, sadly, remain too current, which makes my Afterword still worth reading. I think.
Most of the "new" ideas being floated in Illinois have in fact been tried here before. Reform school is being reborn as today's "residential school," and about the only difference between old-fashioned case work and "family preservation"-style intervention is the name. The elaboration of due process protections for minors facing state intervention, family-first adoption policies, the mainstreaming of the physically disabled children—all these reprise practices that in some cases were first tried prior to the Civil War. As historian Joan Gittens puts it, "All the late 20th century provisions for children have a deja vu quality about them."
A new attitude may be needed more than a new agenda when it comes to improving the lives of children in Illinois. The state's official attitudes toward children's services still harbor a lingering Christian faith in redemption (expressed in social terms by the Protestant uplift that inspired progressives of the last century) that assumes failure to be personal and psychological rather than social and , economic. What religion proposed, science eventually seconded; Freudianism reinforced that view by focusing therapists' attention on the individual psyche as the root of maladjustment.
In reality, of course, neither societies nor families can be understood apart from the other, and policy needs to take cognizance of both. If one assumes that abusive families merely happen also to be poor—that poverty is correlated to family dysfunction but does not cause it—then the problem is bad parenting, which is something that can be cured by teaching. But if one assumes that families become abusive because they are poor—if in effect child neglect becomes a symptom rather than a problem—then the problem is poverty, which suggests an effort of a wholly different kind and scale.
Bureaucracies are vastly better at prevention than cures, if only because preventive programs have a scale and a structure that match that of the agencies. The agency is less appropriate as social physician. A bureaucracy can't be compelled to act like a family; unfortunately, a lot of families can't be compelled to act like a family either. And the only alternative to the state's attentions for dependent children remains abandonment and early death.
Most of what are usually labeled "children's problems" are in fact something else. Poverty is not a child welfare problem but an economic one. Medicaid spending for children is merely another aspect of the larger confusion concerning U.S. health care, which overemphasizes high-tech interventions at the expense of more valuable preventive care.
Public spending on children has several recurring rationales, each of which is persuasive at its historical moment. One decade its purpose is to rescue poor children from their parents, the next to provide custodial care so that mothers without means might be self-sustaining, and after that to provide the benefits of an "ideal home" to those without one.
In each case these reforms sprung from a middle class acting in its own interest, either protectively or (to use today's jargon) proactively. A century ago, when Illinois first began many of its present child welfare programs, the object was not necessarily to ease suffering (although doubtless many good-hearted people hoped it would). The unstated hope was that intervention could relieve the threat from an unsocialized, disease-ridden, and violent underclass whose children menaced property and propriety.
Spending on children, in short, rose when the middle class found itself in uncomfortable proximity to the unlucky, mainly poor. Since World War 11 in particular, proximity no longer is much of a prod to public spending. More and more Illlnoisans have been able to avoid the social costs of neglect by fleeing to the suburbs, just as the fiscal costs were disguised by near-constant economic growth.
In a shrinking economy, other people's children are competitors for public resources, and it probably should not surprise us that the public mood has turned mean. With wealth enough to provide for their own children's needs, and with distance insulating them from day-to-day consequences of unhappiness elsewhere, the accepted rationale for public spending among the comfortable no longer has much less force.
True, part of the reluctance to spend money is owed to lack of faith that government programs work, but we must ask whether those programs have ever been run in ways that might have made them work. Joan Gittens for one argues that climbing aboard the very crowded child abuse bandwagon is a way for people to express their concern for the unfortunate children of the poor without committing themselves to doing anything about the poverty, bad schools, and general collapse of the working-class economy that created it. Project HEART, for instance, gives good-hearted people a chance to speed adoptions rather than undertake reforms in Illinois—including educational and economic revitalization—that might make fewer adoptions necessary in the first place.
There is darkness near the heart of our feelings about children that few people wish to peer into. The failures of Illinois's child welfare system, insists one discouraged reformer in a typical lament, are "not just a question of law or administration but our enduring values—what we think about children." If we tolerate unkindness, even injustice toward the young, perhaps it's because we've contrived a system in which the people who suffer the most are those who are least powerful to protect themselves.
Until policymakers depart from the premise, central to Illinois child welfare for a century, that the cure for the pain suffered by the young because of social breakdown or individual pathology is to fix the child rather than society or the adult, that cure will never come. Illinois's political culture and its humanitarian instincts are still at odds.
The generally abysmal performance by state institutions and agencies (including that of the General Assembly when it comes to funding both) is the result neither of accident or of indifference but an expression of collective political will. A political culture that overvalues the family and undervalues government will find itself at odds with itself when it is obliged to act as family for its children whose own family has failed them in some significant way. ●