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A Toy for the Poorest Tot

This past weekend I had the pleasure of watching the six year old daughter of one of my colleagues make her ballet “debut” as one of the mice in a wonderful performance of The Nutcracker Suite.  The night before I watched scores of children marvel at the  light show at the Lincoln Park Zoo.  Christmas often does seem to be a season for children and it is a delight to behold their sense of wonder and joy.  Whether it is gazing at a beautifully decorated tree, lighting the advent wreath at church, finding the little paper door to open on the glitter covered advent calendar, or dancing with the Sugar Plum Fairy, seeing these days through the eyes of children can be a gift.

Of course, not every child gets taken to see Zoo Lights or gets to dance in a cute mouse costume.  This month UNICEF published a report titled, “The Children Left Behind.”  It focused on the plight of the poorest children in twenty-four of the wealthiest nations.  By measuring data related to health care, material well-being, and education, the report documents which countries are doing a better job of narrowing the gap between the children in the lowest 10th percentile, and those children in the middle, and which are allowing that gap to widen.  Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands scored highest; Greece, Italy, and the United States were at the bottom.  We ranked 23rd out of 24 in material well-being, 19th out of 24 in educational well-being, and 22nd out of 24 in health well-being.  And these numbers reflect data collected before the Great Recession of 2008.  “Bottom end inequality” – how far behind the rich nations are allowing their most disadvantaged children to fall, may not be the only measure of child welfare, but it is a sobering reminder that a nation that has been able to fix Wall Street and is now focused on Main Street has given very little attention to those children who don’t live near either of these places.  If finding ourselves ranked near the bottom in good times is disturbing, imagine what government austerity will do in the coming year?

There is good news to report.  Even the poorest children can be given a toy this Christmas.  And, it’s free (assuming they have access to a computer).  The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has produced a new version of the old board game “Candy Land” called www.ThisWayToJobs.com.  Pick your game piece – a CEO, an entrepreneur, a corporate director – then spin the game dial and make your way toward prosperity through the perils of “Health Care Hill,” “Labor Lagoon,” “Energy Edge,” “Financial Reform Falls,” “Red Tape Zone,” “Law Suit Lake,” and “Guideline Gridlock.”  Job creation is certainly a good thing, though the evidence over the years of much trickling down to the bottom ten percent as a result of economic growth alone is slim.  After all, we were at the bottom of UNICEF’s list when economic times were flush and unemployment was low in the United States.

Play the game, however, and you see the real agenda which is a relentless screed against any and all government regulation.  This, of course, from the people who in large part gave us the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression, fought expanding health care to the uninsured, and raised millions to elect a Congress that can be assured of retaining disproportionate tax advantages to the top one percent of the population.  Chamber members who celebrate Christmas may want to remind us that Jesus said, “The poor will always be with us.”  It is, of course, true that from a statistical standpoint, there will always be a tenth of our children at the bottom.  What UNICEF suggests in language that is pretty consistent with the totality of Jesus’ message, is that “in hard times the poorest children should be the first to be protected, not the last to be considered.”

The good news in UNICEF’s report is that some countries are closing the gap and that they are able to do it while also improving achievement for children in the middle.  Whether we take that path in terms of private investment and public policy remains to be seen.  As I look beyond the Christmas lights to consider who will be sitting in mayoral and governors’ chairs or leading state and national legislatures this coming year, I am not optimistic.

But, enough of this.  It’s still Christmas.  There are still toys to be bought and children whose parents may need our help to give them toys.  If your own budget is tight this year, you can at least give them TheWayToJobs.com.  It may not be the most fun board game ever made.  But for children at the bottom, it is a great way to learn how the game is really played.

John H. Thomas

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