Friday, September 2, 2011

The Constitution and Child Poverty

This past Saturday I made my annual pilgrimage to the Minnesota State Fair. Earlier in the day I had dropped my wife off at the Park and Ride lot closest to our house so she could complete the first of two volunteer shifts at the Pro-Choice Resources booth (she serves on their board, give them a donation). I then took my son home so he could have his afternoon nap, and when he awoke we returned to the same lot and took the bus to the fairgrounds where we met my wife and spent a few hours taking in some of the many cultural, educational, and gastronomical offerings available at this most Minnesotan of gatherings. While there I had an interesting idea (for an invention of sorts, it will take a bit of research before I know whether or not it is feasible), and for the rest of the day my brain was just clicking. Later in the evening back home I was catching up on news and read this excellent op-ed in the New York Times. While digesting the piece and posting the link with a bit of commentary on my Facebook feed I was struck by the thought than when looked at in a certain way, the phenomenon of child poverty in the U.S. is not just tragic, wasteful, and entirely avoidable if certain resources were redirected, but is a gross violation of the terms of that great, often misunderstood document, the U.S. Constitution.

In Article III, Section 3 the Constitution defines what will be considered treason under U.S. jurisprudence, and the section includes the clause "The Congress shall have power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted." Now treason is a pretty serious crime, one of the most serious a person can commit given its potential to enable the large scale destruction of lives and property depending on the specific content of the treasonous act. At the same time, however, the writers of the Constitution wanted to be very clear on what treason actually was. Having recently thrown off British rule, many of them were keenly aware of how fuzzy the definition of treason can be when one is the subject of a monarch, no matter how limited his or her powers may be, and they knew it had often been applied unjustly to people who had simply disagreed with the Crown or Parliament but had done nothing to aid or abet its enemies. Thus they specified that treason "shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort." Having done this they then wrote the clause above about the punishment of treason. As we can see, Congress is given latitude to decide this, but with a couple of interesting restrictions, especially for the time. In England, part of the standard punishment for treason was that strange term "Corruption of Blood", which basically meant that if a man was convicted of treason, not only was his life and property forfeited to the state, but his (most likely innocent) children were disinherited. Such unfortunate children were barred from inheriting not only from their father (whose property had of course already been forfeited), but from any other living relatives such as a grandfather or uncle. As a rule this punishment was reserved mainly for nobles, and it effectively ended the hereditary titles and political influence of any family thus attainted, so it is interesting that the term appears in the founding document of a nation that has no noble class (at least in theory) and grants no hereditary titles.

Now I am no Constitutional scholar (though having majored in political science as an undergrad and more recently earned a masters in public policy I believe I can reasonably assume I have studied it a good deal more than the average citizen), but it seems to me that the inclusion of the clause first quoted sends a pretty powerful message, one that at the time was considered somewhat radical: children should not be punished for the crimes of their parents. By prohibiting Corruption of Blood as a punishment for the most serious crime, one can infer that the framers did not intend for it to be a consequence of lesser crimes either. Yet that is exactly what is happening in the U.S. today from a social, a legal, and most crucially an economic standpoint. And it is true not only for the children of those who have actually been convicted of a crime, but for the children of those who fall into a class that might as well be considered criminal, the poor.

It wasn't always this way. We used to have this thing called the American Dream, and up until 30-40 years ago it was entirely possible for someone who had been born into poverty to break into the ranks of the middle class or the wealthy if they were lucky or talented or had a halfway decent work ethic. It had its challenges, certainly, and in the social arena who your parents were did have an influence, but these were not insurmountable, and there was always the option to pick up and relocate since in those days your past didn't follow you as closely. Today, however, that Dream is dying, and while its decay was in progress long before the current recession, these past few years may have given it a blow from which it might not recover. Today being born into poverty is no longer just a stumbling block coming out of the gate, it is like being shot in the leg before the race even begins.

As detailed in Blow's op-ed, child poverty rates are on the rise, and the consequences for those unlucky enough to be born into it are myriad and debilitating. Such children rarely get adequate pre-natal care when they are in the womb, and when born suffer from poor nutrition, unstable living situations, and a lack of nurturance from parents who are overworked, underpaid, and overstressed. These conditions often lead to diminished brain development, low educational attainment, and increased vulnerability to both physical and mental illness. While some of these children will defy the odds and grow up to be productive members of society, and maybe even the occasional Oprah who shoots into the stratosphere, most of them will be doomed to the same low economic prospects that doomed their parents, ensuring the continuance of the vicious cycle into yet another generation. To me, and I will wager to many others, this situation constitutes a de facto imposition of Corruption of Blood on the children of both actual criminals (whose standard of living plunges when a parent is incarcerated) and the poor (who may as well be criminals, considering how they are treated by the more "respectable" elements of society).

The earthquake that recently struck the Washington D.C. area was described by some as the result of the Founding Fathers collectively rolling in their graves in disgust at the current state of this country. While I do not idolize that group as some do, I give them credit for crafting a Constitution that has stood the test of time and for leaving a great legacy for future generations to aspire to. They were wise to recognize that children should not be punished for the crimes of their parents, and it is time their successors, us, stood up to eradicate the morally abhorrent, economically wasteful, and unconstitutional condition of child poverty. It is not only a wise investment, as decades of research have proven, but it is the ethical thing to do, and by doing so we not only leave a better future for everyone's children, but renew the promise of the contract that binds us all as citizens.           

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