In recent years, advocates of limited government in both the developed and developing worlds have gained significant traction, arguing that large bureaucracies feed inefficiency and corruption, stifle initiative, and interfere with personal privacy. Yet, there is at least one area (likely more), in which that passion for limited government may well be misplaced: the need to guarantee the successful development of children.
Why should the government be involved in raising children, an area that by definition would seem to be a parental responsibility? There are at least five good reasons for government intervention in what is instinctively a family affair:
- Children have their own legal identities and interests—separate from their parents’—worthy of protection. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed by 194 nations, compels states to guarantee their well-being. They are individuals with legal rights and are equal before any law and policy.
- The well-being of children affects not only them and their families but society as a whole. Children who flourish in the early years are more likely to become productive citizens and contribute to a prosperous economy and participatory democracy. An investment in a child’s well-being generates returns over the long term and affects the prosperity and viability of society well into the future.
- Parents don’t always make the appropriate sacrifices for their children. Families with limited resources face competing priorities such as investing in the family business, buying clothes, or sending their child to school or a doctor. Putting a young son or daughter first in that context may involve forfeiting current needs for rewards whose full benefits will be reaped by the child only when he is an adult, whether in professional abilities or health. Unfortunately, some parents are neither patient nor altruistic enough to make those sacrifices.
- Parents sometimes lack the information needed to make the right decisions. They sometimes fail to grasp the link between early childhood experiences and positive outcomes in later life. The importance of daycare is a classic example. Children from low-income families randomly assigned in the 1970s to high-quality daycare in North Carolina were less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to attend a four-year college at 21. But poor parents who aren’t aware of daycare’s vital role may fail to take advantage of the opportunity, even when they have the interests of their child at heart.
- Parents don’t always have the resources to invest in their children. Consider medical procedures. A child with cataracts may need an operation for his eyesight to develop normally. The operation could save the child from serious eyesight problems that would affect his well-being and productivity as an adult. To pay for such an operation, however, the child’s parents need cash in hand or the ability to borrow it. Capital markets might not provide the parents with money today in exchange for some of the future returns resulting from investing in the child.
Children are not raised by their parents alone—nor should they be. It is a far too important and difficult task to be placed solely on the shoulders of a mother and/or father. Relatives, other caregivers, teachers and government also have a hand in molding the experiences children accumulate at home, in daycare centers, at school and in society at large. Improving those experiences will shape children’s lives and the face of the societies they live in for years to come. Clearly, child well-being matters for both ethical and economic reasons and public policy has a vital role to play in developing happy, healthy and well-educated children who grow into socially and economically productive adults.
The role of public policy in raising children is the focus of the 2015 edition of the IDB’s flagship series, Development in the Americas, entitled The Early Years: Child Well-being and the Role of Public Policy. Click here to receive updates on this soon to be launched book and a free PDF upon publication.