Children as a Public Good

Children as a Public Good

Whose responsibility are children? In twenty-first-century America, the answer too often is “their parents.” Although politicians and pundits frequently make pious pronouncements calling children “our best hope,” “our future,” and “our nation’s most valuable resource,” mouthing such sentiments is a far cry from taking collective responsibility. In the current election season, one listens in vain for concrete proposals from candidates to improve the lives of children. The United States lags behind all other western democracies in providing for their needs. We have to revise the national mindset, visible on the left as well as the right, that puts sole responsibility for children in the hands of individual families, many of whom are ill-equipped to give them the care and opportunities necessary to provide for the citizens, workers, and human beings we wish to develop. Further, instead of viewing parents with professional careers as irresponsible workaholics, we should appreciate the incredibly hard work that parents do when they are simultaneously holding jobs and raising children.
Certainly, parents have primary responsibility for meeting the needs of their children; the argument here is that meeting children’s needs should be a collective responsibility as well. Although parents reap the rewards of well-reared children (emotional rather than economic rewards in this day and age), children whose needs have been met confer benefits as well on society as a whole. We need to make a reality of the rhetoric that sees children as our most valuable asset.

As an economist, I argue that children must be considered a public good whose welfare and education need to be addressed collectively. In other words, it really does take a village to raise a child. A public good is one whose provision confers externalities-benefits beyond those accruing to the direct beneficiaries. Public schooling confers such externalities; the public as well as individual students and parents benefit when its citizens are literate and numerate, and when they understand the benefits of democracy. This is how the state justifies taxing the public to provide for children’s schooling.

The notion that children are a private good leads to the conclusion that their economic and emotional care is the sole responsibility of their parents. This philosophy was most clearly articulated by President Richard Nixon, when he vetoed the Child Development Act of 1971: “For the Federal Government to plunge headlong financially into supporting child development would commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against [sic] the family-centered approach.” There was no sense that parents and the federal government might engage in a partnership for child care, no sense that there were public benefits to be gained from federal involve...


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