‘Do it for the Children’: History’s Long Running Argument

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Headline Passing the Buck 3 x 1-JILLA popular way for politicians to demonstrate their altruistic intentions is to invoke “our children and our grandchildren.” The phrase should be worn out by now, but politicians see it differently: if it worked before, it’ll work again, no matter how long it’s been around. Their concern for the future is much more poignant and meaningful when it’s “for the kids.” The term is used so often, it should be considered child-phrase abuse.

It always sounds well intentioned to be against spending with impunity, but history suggests it’s merely the position of the party not currently in control of the nation’s purse strings. The party in power rarely expresses any worry about “our children and grandchildren.”

Like it or not, that’s how it works. “The children” have been used in every crisis to manipulate the electorate. The complaining party either just left office or was building a case to take it back again.

It’s interesting (and frustrating) how history repeats itself: “The sale … of our government bonds to European capitalists … to be paid in full, principal and interest, by our children and grandchildren …” Sounds like today’s news, but it was said in 1867, addressing debts of the Civil War. The same is said today, citing China instead of Europe.

War traditionally yields long-term debt, so post-war periods carry an onslaught of save-the-children pleas.  In 1917, regarding WWI: “Shall we pay for it with cash in hand … or shall we pay for it this year and all other years … our children and grandchildren … bound to the frightful burden of it, age after age?”

In 1925 regarding WWI debt: “We thought that the war was costing us a lot, but … it is our children and grandchildren  to whom are left the payment of the financial cost, and it is estimated that not until 1972 will the last of the war debt be extinguished. In fact, we are still paying the debts of the Civil War, and the cost was a mere trifle compared with that of the World War.”

On top of WWI debt, the 1930s featured the New Deal, and Republicans went heavily to the attack. In 1934: “… the public debt now amounts to … a staggering sum … it isn’t you or even myself that I am worrying about.  … what about our children and grandchildren? They will be left to face the music.”

In 1936, regarding the Democrats who took power in 1932:  “They found a debt of $20 billion … and they are leaving … a debt of $40 billion. … Not only have they mortgaged our future, but that of our children and grandchildren. They have taken a blood transfusion from infants not born.”

There are so many examples of referring to the children: in 1954 about a balanced, in 1960 on the national debt, and in the 1970s for Vietnam, the War on Poverty, and desegregation.

Does this sound like anything you read today? “Our most serious fiscal hemorrhage results from the entitlement programs of recent years. Some of these programs, such as food stamps, student loans, Medicaid, subsidized housing, and nutrition carry a needs test for eligibility. If we are serious about reducing the deficits, these needs tests will have to be further strengthened. … One of these days, our children and grandchildren will discover a trillion dollars in unfunded liabilities …”

The irony is, that’s from the Reagan administration in 1983, and the word trillion came back to haunt them. Just a few years later, the national debt reached $3 trillion, more than triple what he inherited.

Since that time, it has been the budget, the federal deficit, entitlements, veterans’ benefits, the Iraqi War, Hurricane Katrina recovery, and Tarp that have led to constantly bemoaning the fate of “our children and grandchildren.”

On the regional level, pleas on behalf of the children have been employed on many issues: in Canton, regarding bonds for a water system in 1916; bonds to provide a war bonus to veterans in 1947; to save the Ausable Forks Community Center in 1981; highway/bridge bonds in St. Lawrence County in 1988; the 21st Century Bond Act in 1990, partly to buy Adirondack lands; and the fight in Lake Placid against a proposed Walmart in 1995.

But it wasn’t always about the children. In an 1871 article about the cost of the Civil War being shared with future Americans, one veteran saw it this way: “We of this generation saved the country in the late Rebellion, at a heavy cost of lives and treasure. Why should we be taxed so heavily to pay off the debt? Why should not the burden be left to our children and grandchildren, when the resources of our country and its population may be doubled?”

A similar viewpoint came from a WWI veteran in 1919: “We are fighting the war to make the world safe for democracy. … Future generations should share the price of this boon with the present generation which bears the heaviest load.”

Not to be outdone was the “West Branch Philosopher” from the banks of the Oswegatchie, who in 1960 (in the Gouverneur Tribune-Press) wrote with tongue thoroughly in cheek: “Of course I understand what the President is saying: he means the debt we run up will have to be paid off by our children and grandchildren, and he’s right, but in defense of us adults, I’d like to underscore the fact that a lot of these debts we’re running up can be traced directly to the children.

“Take schools. When you go into debt to build a school, it’s not for the parents’ benefit. Most parents I know are already educated about as far as they intend to go. It may not be far enough, but most of them seem satisfied with it.

“Or take roads. Of course parents use roads, provided their teen-age children are tied up with the mumps, and half the time when the parents are using roads, it’s for hauling kids around who are too young to drive, but loud enough to get their way.

“And so it goes. Hospitals, parks, even national defense, whatever it is that goes with our national budget, the children are getting a pretty good slice of it, and I for one am glad to be able to shift a little of the cost onto them when they grow up. One of the troubles with children now is that they expect everything to be handed to them free of charge. If we keep piling up the national debt, it looks like we’ll get that notion out of their heads one of these days.”

Makes about as much sense as everything else on the subject.

One thought on “‘Do it for the Children’: History’s Long Running Argument

  1. Mildred Goss

    Enjoyed your piece on Cecile Dukett (Ethel Dale) but the spelling of her first name is not correct. My mother was named after her (Cecile Margaret Dukett) Daughter of her brother Lee Dukett. There was only one “l” in her name. I also recall being told that after the contest and her legs being used as the model for hosiery her legs were insured for one million dollars through Lloyd’s of London (as a publicity stunt) . I was not aware of her marriage to Edward Dale. Only her marriage to Ralph Block. Do you know how that marriage ended and when? Thanks, Millie (Brothers) Goss


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