Campus News

Remarks by U.S. Representative Tom Allen on Sarah and James Bowdoin Day September 19, 1997

Story posted September 19, 1997

"Children And Communities: Where Do De Go From Here?"

Thank you. President Edwards ... Bowdoin faculty ... Fellow alumni ... Sarah and James Bowdoin scholars ... Parents and friends. I am delighted to help celebrate the academic achievements of these scholars.

I am honored, and somewhat surprised, to address you today. I never expected to stand here when sat there as an undergraduate. I harbor no illusions that what I say here will have lasting impact on your lives. For I have absolutely no recollection of the three speeches I heard when I was a student!

But I intend to press ahead anyway.

Bowdoin challenges its students. You have responded successfully to its academic challenges. I congratulate you on the honors bestowed on you today. For the next few minutes I ask you to think about the challenges that lie ahead -- for you individually and for our country. I'm not talking about how you find a job after Bowdoin! One of my daughters has already allowed Diana and I to share her anxiety about that process. I ask you to think about your roles in a broader community.

I am talking about the challenges we face together, the challenges for which we share responsibility because we all belong to communities. The community may be a town, an association, a church, a state, or the United States of America.

The circumstances of this country's founding and history have led us to emphasize individual effort and personal liberty. But the responsibility of collective action in pursuit of common, public goals is as deeply rooted in our history, dating back over 375 years ago to the mayflower compact of the pilgrims.

Reflect for a moment on where we've been as a country in this century. We fought and won two world wars. We weathered a depression and became the world's greatest economic power. In my lifetime, we conquered polio, averted nuclear holocaust, walked on the moon and boldly entered the information age of gigabytes and net surfing. Internationally, we won the cold war and tore down the Berlin wall in triumph. Back home, we tore down walls of racial separation, gender inequality and other manifestations of bigotry and hate.

We've made plenty of mistakes along the way. In the 60s and 70s, Vietnam created divisions in our society which haunt us still. In the 1980s we took a serious economic detour. In particular, we indulged our collective fondness for large tax cuts and high levels of spending. The result was annual federal deficits of up to $200 million or more. We began borrowing from you and your children to pay for our current.

But in 1993 with president Clinton's deficit reduction plan, we turned the tide. Interest rates dropped, economic growth improved and the deficit declined dramatically, from $290 billion in 1992 before president Clinton took office to an estimated $37 billion for the fiscal year that ends on September 30th. For all practical purposes, given the size of our economy, the federal budget is balanced. For the next ten years, the congressional budget office estimates the United States will run deficits of up to $57 billion and surpluses of up to $ 86 billion.

We have accomplished in only five years what seemed impossible when Ross Perot made the deficit a main stream political issue in the 1992 campaign. Why? Because, with all its flaws, this democracy works -- when the challenges are big enough and serious enough to demand and receive our collective focus and attention.

So what's next? Where do we go from here? Many voices will sing the same tired tune they've sung for the last decade: cut spending, reduce taxes, downsize the federal government, return power to the states, push individuals to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Is there no new mission to claim your generation's attention?

I believe there is.

It is a mission rooted in our fundamental and enduring values. It is a mission that, in Abraham Lincoln's words, requires that "we ... Think anew, and act anew ... And then we shall save our country." It is not manufactured. It confronts many of us every day. Yet, we have chosen to ignore it or at least not to respond appropriately.

Let me approach what I am talking about with some anecdotes and statistics. From January 1979 to the present, the Dow Jones industrials average has risen from just over 800 to just under 8000. From 1969 to 1995 the number of children in this country living in poverty rose from 9.7 million to 14.7 million, from 14 percent to 21 percent. Maine has nearly 340,000 children under the age of 19. Most live in secure homes with caring, nurturing parents. Most are healthy, attend good schools and have parents, grand parents and other adults who instill them with good values. Most will grow up to be hard working, productive, law abiding citizens.

Most, but too far from all.

Many of our children are being left behind. Over 55,000 of Maine's children, or 18 percent live in poverty. Nationally, 25 percent of children under 3 are growing up in poverty. Teachers and principals at Maine elementary schools tell me that in the last 5 years especially, but also for the last 10 or 15 years, they have seen a significant increase in 5 and 6 year old children with little or no capacity to play with other children or to participate in class. These kids lack the basic social skills that allow ordinary interaction with others. Consequently, they are extraordinarily difficult to teach. Many get their only real meals at school. Teachers and principals do not know how to deal with them.

The explanation is always the same. They come from families where substance abuse is chronic, and neglect follows. A few months ago I attended the white house conference on early childhood development.

One speaker pointed to research indicating that 4 out of 10 children are not ready for kindergarten. Recent research on the development of the brain suggests that the first three years of life are crucial for our emotional and intellectual development. Most significantly, the way that parents, families and other caregivers relate and respond to young children directly affect the formation of neural pathways in the brain. Caring for children in the first three years of life is an enormous task. And now we have too many single teenagers trying to cope with that challenge.

The research described at the White House conference indicates that most child care/early education settings are of mediocre to poor quality. As one speaker said, "quality child care is brain food. Our kids don't have enough." What we have is often not affordable for those who need it most. Last year, the census bureau reported that for the first time, more than half of the children of the nation's working mothers were cared for by a non-relative, 30 percent in organized daycare.

In Cumberland county, the average per week cost for professional child care is $121 for an infant, $112 for a toddler and $100 for a pre-schooler. For a working woman earning five dollars, six dollars, even seven dollars an hour, child care can take over $100 per child out of $200 to $350 -- before taxes -- salary per week.

Federal and state support for child care is simply not adequate to the problem. To put it simply, we need to create, in Rob Reiner's words, the "national will" to make early education and quality, affordable child care a fundamental priority. We have national models close at hand. The Brunswick Naval Air Station has an award-winning comprehensive child care system combining early childhood centers and private homes.

The Bath-Brunswick child care agency provides quality care and has instituted a program of home visits for pre-natal and post-natal care that is the best hope for dealing with parenting issues nationally. But it's not enough. There is more to do in every community. Block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, town by town, state by state, it is a daunting task. But it must be done.

We know what needs to be done. Successful examples abound. Early Head Start programs in Chicago, Hawaii and San Antonio are models. The Charlotte-Mecklenberg system presents an education gift package to every new mother that includes booklets on helping your child learn in the first years of life. Almost every study demonstrates the success of pre-natal and post-natal home visits as the key to improving parenting skills. Hawaii's universal program has been a resounding success. To cite just one figure, Hawaii has reduced repeat cases of child abuse from 62 percent to 3 percent.

What is missing is the national will to leave no child behind and the resources to make it happen. I believe that a country that can support NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball salaries can take better care of its kids.

Let's turn our attention to another age group -- late middle school and the first few years of high school. We're losing some of our children then. I "teach" in schools all across this district. At least I call it teaching. I enter a classroom to talk with students about government and politics. The class rooms are very different. The elementary students, most of them, are full of questions. Often 5 or 6 hands will be waving at once. The middle school students are becoming aware of public issues. The college students are generally engaged. But the high schools students -- most of them -- are a tough house to play. They are bored. They are marking time. Too many are more concerned with their after-school jobs than with their school work. Several students told me that they come home at 8:30 p.m. after school and four hours of work and, no surprise, homework gets neglected. Too many choose Madonna and Seinfeld, Scully and Mulder or Beavis and Butthead as their role models. Too many would rather watch "Melrose Place" than read To Kill a Mockingbird. Too many become parents while they still desperately need parents.

Substance abuse continues to deter teenagers from reaching their potential. Maine has the highest incidence of tobacco use among young adults, 18 to 30, in the nation. More than 90 percent of adult tobacco users became addicted between the ages of 10 and 20. A university of Maine study released in February found that 26 percent of 9th graders admitted to getting drunk during the previous 2 weeks. 18 Percent admitted to smoking marijuana at least once a month and 23 percent of 7th and 8th graders have tried the latest craze, inhalants. Substance abuse has physical and emotional consequences for our youngest children and holds back -- to say the least -- many of our teens.

As Stephanie Coontz observes in "The Way We Really Are," concerns over adolescence are not new. Moreover, teen suicide and crime rates are often overstated. She points out, however, that if measured by economic dependence on parents, and segregation from socially useful work, adolescence has actually been prolonged. But adolescents have more autonomy than in the past in matters of leisure and discretionary consumption.

As a parent and observer, I am coming to the conclusion that high school students today have too little contact with adults who are not their parents. It follows that our social policies should be designed to integrate teens into the fabric of our communities. At the very least, youth development and recreation programs, as well as job-training for non-college bound young people, should be a priority. YouthBuild in Portland takes at-risk teens and gives them instruction in carpentry skills. It works, but it costs money.

On a related issue progress is being made -- and by this congress. The Maine health care commission last year estimated that another 36,000 Maine children had no health insurance coverage. The national figure is 10.5 million children. These are not poor children. These are the children of working families who can't afford the high cost of health insurance. I worked this year to help provide an additional $24 billion over 5 years for children's health care in the balanced budget act. It was a very satisfying accomplishment. But, at best, that will provide insurance for only about half of Maine's uninsured kids.

These issues are all related to the well-being of our children and families. Health care, child care, early education, and substance abuse form a complex of issues that need our collective attention and commitment.

A study of child abuse conducted in the county of Sacramento, California and released in June by the child welfare league of America graphically demonstrates the links that bind them together. "Parental neglect and abuse are what directly propel children into the child welfare system, the study notes. "But neglect and abuse do not occur in a vacuum." And they have consequences that ripple through our communities. Ask yourself how much more likely are childhood victims of abuse or neglect to commit crimes than children who are not victims?

The Sacramento study provides a clue. At the time of the study the county's department of human services had identified 1100 children between the ages of 9 and 12 who were victims of abuse and neglect. There were 73,900 other 9 to 12 year olds who were not known to the department. During the study 132 children between 9 and 12 were arrested in Sacramento county for criminal acts. Exactly 66 were known to the department, and 66 were not. The arrest rate for victims of abuse and neglect was 67 times the arrest rate of others. 67 Times. Needless to say, the likelihood that a child will commit future offenses is closely related to the number of court appearances between the ages of 9 and 12.

In short, state departments of human services know -- now -- the names and addresses of children most likely to commit crimes in their 20s. Intervention is cheaper, by far, than neglect. In her work on "What We Really Miss About the 1950s," Stephanie Coontz points out that a major cause of social mobility then was the combination of federal assistance programs like the G.I. Bill, for which 40 percent of young men were eligible, and public infrastructure investment was high.

Net investment in public works has been steadily declining as a percentage of gross national product. My argument today is that investment in our children and their families should be our highest national priority for the next decade. We know too much about the early years of life not to act now.

Such a mission will require substantial federal assistance, but the major effort must be made at the grass roots by people who care enough to commit some of their resources and time and energy. All of us have a part to play. It doesn't have to be a career, although bowdoin's many teachers are testimony to the rewards of that profession.

Bowdoin has produced its share of activists.

Geoffrey Canada of the class of 1974 is president of Rheedlen Center for children and families in New York City. Michael Petit of the class of 1968 is deputy director of the child welfare league of America, which is helping states develop responsible child policies.

But for many here, we will do our part by how we connect and engage children and families we know, our own and others. And, I would add, by how we participate in the coming national debate over education, health care, child care, substance abuse and the complex of issues created by this evolving society and economy.

I have tried this afternoon to outline the most important challenge, or set of related challenges, we face as a country. Simply stated, the challenge is to leave no child behind. I believe that successfully meeting this challenge is the urgent mission of the next decade. I have done so without -- so far -- mentioning Joseph McKeen's remark about the purpose of the this college. But what he said in 1802 is part of our shared history here at Bowdoin.

He said that literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good, and not the private advantage of those who resort to them for education. The common good -- a phrase that seems a bit quaint at the end of two decades or so during which the concept of the common good has been interpreted by many to mean the sum of many individual goods. The common good is not that. It means the good that can only be enjoyed together. The good we create together. The good we experience in communities, not alone.

Across 200 years of the history of this college, McKeen speaks to you today. For the question I have asked, "Where do we go from here?" is really many questions, or rather one question repeated over and over to each of us. It is, "What will I do?"

Thank you.

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