WITH A NOTE almost of weariness, All Our Children tells home truths about the American family that are regularly re-forgotten. First, the family is not responsible for its structure and life-style - for example that women increasingly take jobs and spouses separate. Mainly, families are responding and adapting to powerful economic and ideological forces. Second, children are increasingly in the grip of an unrestrained technology - television that shapes their minds, altered foods that shape their bodies. Parents cannot much affect these forces within their own households.
And third, children make out badly because the United States is an unequal society, with one out of four children born to a "stacked deck." Equal opportunity cannot be real without equal environment. ("Who said that 12 years ago, children?" "President Lyndon Johnson." "Who soon forgot it?" "Everyone.") Equal is not the same as clothed or not hungry, and unequal is not the same as poor. Equal means living within hailing distance of average, however magnificent average is.
The Carnegie Council on Children, which is responsible for the study that led to this book, keeps these ideas in focus as it proceeds through argument and recommendations. Grasping the distinction between inequality and poverty is a feat that the more exalted Council of Economic Advisers, for example, has not seemed to bring off. Even fresher (in both senses of the word), the book asserts that single-parent families are as good for children as two-parent families. That is the evidence and the authors do not fudge it. The New York Times, editorially shocked at this, has accused the Council on Children of "semantic laundering," a not-so-clean use of a term that has come to imply subterfuge.
Like its truths, the book's recommendations have been heard and not attended to before: An "explicit family policy" that includes jobs and an assured standard of living for all families, flexible working conditions to provide leeway for family responsibilities, an integrated network of family services, a health system reorganized to assure care for children, and improved legal protections for children. Jobs, income, health, and law are fundamental. It is no good acting as if details like day-care or parent education, however useful in themselves, are central or powerful. That is the argument. Moreover, the recommendations consistently aim at "all our children," because special programs for poor children turn out to be poor programs.That lesson has been learned and in this book translated into a principle for programming.
These are important and unexceptionable positions, but beyond them the book seems incomplete. Under the heading of assured income, for example, it lays out an interesting "credit income tax" - a highly simplified system that would collect revenue and assured minimum income. Acknowledging that it would be a "herculean labor" to bring off such a reform, little more than a page is devoted to what may be done meanwhile in taxation, social security, and welfare. Within the compass of what is covered or, more exactly, not covered in that page, Congress will occupy itself for years and redirect many billions of dollars. It is as if the authors, having glimpsed Canaan, refuse to lead us through the desert.
That may simply be impatience but, also, one finishes the book without understanding how a family policy would be different from a policy for anyone. That is not a new problem; people on all sides of any argument may assert that they are strengthening the American family.Similarly, the areas of policy set forth - jobs, income, health - are almost the entire domestic agenda of the nation.Surely, particular programs or areas of policy might be identified as having special importance for children without being driven to details or trivia.
Countries that formally claim a family policy, French and Spanish speaking in the main, understand that it asserts a distinctive claim on major policy areas - social security and population policy among them. When one understands the nature of the claim, pro- or antinatalist for example, the argument may heat up. Perhaps countries that have a family policy are more homogenous than the United States. If that is the problem, does it serve American children or families to use the term like a slogan, with everyone claiming it for diverse purposes? To sharpen the point, will Congressmen and administrations be brought to support particular policies if they understand that they can use the slogan to support any policies they wish?
Still, as much as the book has done it has done well. It holds justified reasurance for parents, whether couples or alone, who imagine they are personally responsible for all the anxiety and pressure they feel. For those who write and administer laws, it sets forth an unusually coherent and forward-looking set of assumptions against which, if they care about children, they should test their policies.