Jonathan Zimmerman: How Special are Your Needs?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools (Harvard University Press).]

Imagine two infant children, somewhere in America. One has a severe cognitive disability, while the other is born into extreme poverty.

Which one deserves government assistance? In my mind, they both do. The disabled infant needs early speech therapy and a host of other services. But so does the poor child, who enters life with huge disadvantages in health, education and more.

So why do so many Americans deem the first child more worthy of public support?

Look no further than the Republican National Convention, and you'll see what I mean. "To the families of special-needs children all across this country, I have a message," declared vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, the proud mother of an infant with Down syndrome. "I pledge to you that if we are elected, you will have a friend and advocate in the White House."

Television cameras panned to the adorable 4-month-old Trig Palin, while the crowd cheered. And we should all applaud Sarah Palin for bringing attention to the plight of disabled children, who often don't receive the services promised them under federal law.

But here's the larger point: There is a law, and we're all bound by it. Since 1975, the federal government has required schools to provide disabled children a "free, appropriate public education" in the "least restrictive setting." And the law was signed by a Republican president, Gerald R. Ford.

That's important, too. As the cheers for Trig Palin revealed, we now have a strong bipartisan consensus on a simple principle: Children with special needs deserve special help. Through no fault of their own, they begin life with a set challenges. So it's the duty of all of us — through our government — to lend them a hand.

Somehow, though, poor kids don't elicit the same sympathy. Remember that 8.1 million children in our country still lack health insurance. But Republican lawmakers — including Sen. John McCain, Sarah Palin's running mate — blocked last year's reauthorization of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which would halve the number of uninsured children by 2013.

Think about it: The same people who cheered for Trig Palin — and for his mom's pledge — have blocked public health insurance for America's poorest kids. If you're born with a physical disability, the government is required to assist you. But if you're born into poverty, you're often on your own.

Why? To many Americans, clearly, poor people are responsible for their own fate. But even if you grant this premise, how can you fault the children of the poor? Shall the sins of the parents simply be visited on the young? The more you blame their parents, indeed, the more poor kids would seem to merit help.

That's the real issue here: Who gets help, and why? As usual, though, we're not talking about it. Instead, the Trig Palin saga has triggered yet another battle in America's perennial election-year fracas: the culture wars.

So pro-lifers praise the Palins for electing to bring Trig into the world, while the pro-choice camp demands the same freedom for a mother who chooses an abortion. Across the political spectrum, meanwhile, women ask whether a mom with a Down syndrome baby can also find time to serve as our vice-president.

Most recently, Trig Palin became a weapon in the war over stem-cell research. Democratic VP nominee Joe Biden blasted the GOP for its opposition to this research, which could provide therapies for disabled kids like Trig. Republicans fired back, condemning Biden for "launching an offensive debate over who cares more about special-needs children."

That's a debate no side can win, of course, and it distracts us from the biggest question of all. Rather than asking Sarah Palin about abortion or stem cells, then, let's ask her about the larger role of government in the lives of children. Who should get help, and why? I'll be eager to hear her answer.

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Jim Good - 9/19/2008

I find this issue puzzling as well. How can children living in poverty be held accountable for the sins of their parents (assuming the parents are poor because of some moral defect)? Is this simply an irrational bias against the poor? How else do we explain many Americans' willingness to punish innocent children as they clamor about the importance of family values?