Harvard Educational Review
  1. Spring 1995 Issue »

    Visions of Entitlement

    The Care and Education of America's Children

    Edited by Mary A. Jensen and Stacie G. Goffin.
    Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993. 292 pp. $59.50, $19.95 (paper).

    Not since the Industrial Revolution have families in the United States undergone such profound social and economic changes. One out of four children below the age of six now grows up in a family that cannot afford safe housing, adequate nutrition, or health care (Boyer, 1991). One of every seven children is receiving public assistance, while one of every four is raised by a single parent (National Governors' Association, 1992). Perhaps this by now familiar litany presages the future of the postmodern American family; certainly, it reveals how our social institutions have failed to keep pace with a shifting social and cultural landscape. "Can it be mere coincidence," asks Sharon Kagan (1987), "that the two institutions that most directly influence children (schools and families) are in such flux simultaneously?" (p. 161). The "flux" in our society is not merely institutional, of course; virtually all sectors of society are struggling to formulate goals and structures appropriate to the changing circumstances of children and families.

    The way families rear their children has been a source of societal concern since the colonial era. In the eighteenth century this concern focused on the moral and religious upbringing of children. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, however, and the consequent upheaval in the social and economic order, childrearing became the center of what was perceived to be a larger crisis in urban family life. Often working in concert with municipal authorities, a plethora of groups and agencies sponsored the rapid growth or reconfiguration of institutions designed to provide care, supervision, and instruction to children whose parents (frequently immigrants) could not or would not care for them. At best, these institutions and their upper-class patrons viewed slum parents as the victims of a chaotic social environment; at worst, parents were deemed responsible for raising "moral orphans" (Boyer, 1978, p. 40). Even though our service agencies in the 1990s are being called upon to respond to a dramatically different society from that of a century ago, this simplistic line of analysis continues to frame the debate. It no longer suffices, however, to leave this most important of national conversations to the ideologues and politicians. Nor is it realistic to maintain simply that social policy is a matter of empirical research. Policymaking is as much a reflection of social values as research, and in this we all must participate.

    There is widespread agreement about the need for institutional evolution; the direction of that evolution, however, sparks divisive debate. In Visions of Entitlement: The Care and Education of America's Children, editors Mary Jensen and Stacie Goffin bring together writers from a variety of disciplines to examine not merely "the various meanings of entitlement in relation to meeting the basic needs of young children in our society, but also the impact that proposed social and economic goals and policies may have on children and their families" (p. x). Using entitlement as a lens through which to review the research and social policy landscape, the writers explore the concept as a social system support, a legal right, and, developmentally, as a set of expectations located in children's psyches.

    In "Entitlement in Early Care and Education: A Tale of Two Rights," Sharon Kagan seeks to expand our understanding of entitlement by posing two questions. The first question, "What is right for young children and families in order to ensure optimal development?" frames entitlement in terms of what practice and research over the last twenty-five years have demonstrated to be pedagogically and developmentally correct for young children. The second question, "To what are children rightfully entitled?" explores entitlement in a political sense, as a legal claim that certifies privilege. Arguing that the latter view of children's rights has framed child and family policy in the United States for too long, Kagan advocates instead for "an alternative conception of rights [and hence, entitlements], one that embraces both legal and psychological dimensions" (p. 4). In other words, by having discovered much about what is developmentally correct for children, Kagan maintains, we have discovered what should be the basis for our policy.

    Defining children's rights forms the focus of Part One of this passionate, informative volume. Colin Wringe argues in "Children's Welfare Rights Are Entitlements" that because "countless children do not have adequate food, shelter, medical care, or education" (p. 32), "rights" for children dare not be viewed as mere charity nor even as another priority on our national legislative agenda, but rather as a profound social ill that "must be dealt with right away. Other concerns must wait" (p. 32). Because we all have needs, defining the rights of children in terms of their needs is not sufficient, according to Wringe, who maintains that "where a right is involved, the needs and priorities of others have no standing" (p. 33). If the rights of children are not ensured, Wringe argues, then the future membership of these individuals in our society will be dangerously limited; they will not be able to participate in those decisions (including the making of laws) that affect their lives, and ultimately the lives of all. Or, as Marian Wright Edelman warns in a recent edition of The Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin, "We have not valued millions of our children's lives and so they do not value ours in a society in which they have no social or economic stake or sense of community" (Edelman, 1994).

    Robert Haveman and Barbara Wolfe take the discussion into the economic realm with "Well-Being, Entitlements, and Investment in Children." By defining entitlements for children as an investment in the future of society, they argue for "improved schools, more child-care time by parents, more stable family lives, and more income and earnings for families that now live in poverty" (p. 63). In their review of child-care and education research, Haveman and Wolfe find convincing evidence that an investment in children results in a payoff for the children themselves, their families, and for society as a whole.

    But there are limitations to this line of reasoning: In the zero-sum game of budgeting, allocating more resources to one group (children) inevitably means denying resources to others. How are we, therefore, to determine whose resources should be sacrificed?

    Turning research into policy is never straightforward nor free of contextual considerations. Haveman and Wolfe offer the well-accepted evidence, for example, that a prevalence of single-parent families is one cause of the observed increase in children's poverty. But how are the policymakers to make use of this knowledge? Should they increase social investment to increase family income, self-sufficiency, and job opportunities? Or should they reduce welfare payments and enforce child support and work requirements? Either action will have profound (and, almost certainly, unanticipated) consequences in areas such as education, health, and family life. The task for policy analysts, Haveman and Wolfe conclude, is to "improve [the] knowledge of the linkages between particular investments and their associated outcomes"(p. 77). For policymakers, the task is to act, "relying on existing knowledge, while at the same time being aware of its fragility" (p. 77). The difficulty with Haveman and Wolfe's human capital model is that, while impressively efficient, it attempts to avoid consideration of the social values that inevitably surround policy decisions.

    As writers in fields as varied as law, psychology, and public health reflect similarly in this volume on the deteriorating condition of families in the United States, the reader begins to see that the impact of that deterioration, like the apocalyptic rend in the temple veil, is creating ever widening and threatening tears throughout the fabric of our society.

    The second part of Visions of Entitlement documents the grim realities of poor children in a variety of settings. In schools, health clinics, and rural communities, the writers (e.g., Stanley Greenspan, Valerie Polakow, Neal Halfon, and Gale Berkowitz) examine the ways our social policies systematically deny even basic health and education to poor and disadvantaged children. Little in the statistical reports here is new. However, the vignettes of children such as second-grader Heather, who has been caught stealing food in the school lunchroom because "she and her sister [are] chronically hungry, particularly when food stamps [run] out before the end of the month"(p. 167), remind us, if we have dared forget, that Heather represents the future of our society. The writers argue passionately that unless we recognize that such problems are embedded in the wider structures and organization of our society and its institutions, the lives of children cannot be effectively changed.

    What's to be done then? And where can we start to make the necessary changes? Writers in the third and final section of this volume advocate assuring the well-being of poor and disadvantaged children by supporting all families. "As a nation," Cheryl Hayes declares,

    we must ensure that supports and services are available in every community to relieve the pressures and stresses that push families at all income levels to the breaking point. This means providing family support and early intervention services to strengthen vulnerable families and to help them avoid problems later. (p. 239)

    But how might federal, state, and local entities go about creating the programs to provide these services? A tradition of parens patriae, in which government intervenes in family life only in drastic situations, has been a cornerstone of family policy throughout our history. Do we have the moral and political will to act on what we know to be effective?

    In "Building Villages: Lessons from Policy Entrepreneurs," Heather Weiss draws "lessons" from the experiences of four pioneering states that have overcome political and economic hurdles to "successfully develop state-initiated, community-based prevention programs to provide family support and education services to families with young children" (p. 267). Weiss's astutely argued report warns us that the creation of such programs is not merely a question of research and resources, but depends on two additional factors. The first is the ability to

    move carefully and responsibly through the largely unchartered territory of greater public involvement in family life. [The second factor is the ability to] incorporate into these new initiatives to support families, the wisdom and recognition of interdependence and mutual obligation.(p. 262)

    Weiss points to the 1991 recommendations of the bipartisan National Commission on Children as the beginning of a hopeful new direction in child and family policy. Moving beyond the parens patriae tradition, "the commissioners [take] a new position sanctioning interventions to strengthen and support all families with children who desire such assistance"(p. 264). The significance of this change, Weiss explains, is that it allows policymakers to move beyond the view of children as deserving poor, "to the position that to help young children one must help their parents — moreover, that there is a public and community responsibility to do so" (pp. 264–265). This public and community responsibility is manifested in the four programs Weiss goes on to describe, programs in which state and local governments, social agencies and families overcame their social and political differences to create a "village" of services for families and children, regardless of the families' economic circumstances.

    In her "Introduction: Prospects for Children's Well-Being," editor Jensen makes two points that seem to me central to the conversation of this volume: first, that while our knowledge about what is effective for children and families is far from perfect, we have learned from empirical and evaluation research of the last twenty-five years a great deal about children's social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development. However, if we have defined the problems and know how to address them, as many writers in this volume maintain, why don't we just do it? The answer, Jensen acknowledges in her second point, is that "expert advice stemming from child development research will no longer suffice in the examination of needed social policy or social programs. We must collectively examine our values at family, community, state, and national levels" (p. ix). In other words, the policy debate, while often waged in a faux language of science and demonstrable outcomes, has as much to do with the values we hold as a society as with what we might be able to demonstrate empirically.

    In some ways, it is because our knowledge is "far from perfect" that the debate often polarizes along the lines of language. Sharon Kagan uses the metaphor of the half-full or half-empty glass to characterize the difficulty:

    Our knowledge of "what is right" is never perfect and rarely irrefutable. Conceptions of correctness vary over time and culture so that when we consider what is right for children, from one perspective the proverbial glass of water is, and always will be, half-empty. (p. 5)

    And herein lies the basis for much of the current political impasse. So long as the debate focuses at the level of language and the individual program, there will be compelling (and politically expedient) evidence that a different program, implemented in a different way by a different group, will better address the issue. More evidence is not likely to change the nature of this dialogue. Nor will appropriating the moral high ground by politicians at either end of the political spectrum invite the kind of national debate in which all of us need to participate. To cast the conversation in liberal or conservative terms risks missing the larger point that the dialogue must include everyone, for the obvious reason that it involves everyone.

    Sociologist Alan Wolfe has argued that our social debates were once framed in larger terms than merely liberal or conservative. But because both markets and states have expanded, what was once an inclusive conversation has become a polarized dialogue — between advocates of "individualism" versus "collective obligations" (Wolfe, 1989, p. 12). Wolfe would have us recall a time in our past when the concept of "civil society" called on individuals to develop community norms through the creation of ties of solidarity with others:

    To revive notions of moral agency associated with civil society is to begin development of a language appropriate to addressing the paradox of modernity and to move us away from techniques that seek to displace moral obligations by treating them purely as questions of economic efficiency or public policy. (p. 13)

    Visions of Entitlement is a penetrating, often eloquent examination of the last twenty-five years of research and policy in the debate on the care and education of children. It convincingly argues that, far from being peripheral, the decisions we now make regarding children and families will have a profound impact on the way our society and our institutions evolve.

    In their presentation of the data, however, many of the writers too frequently equate research with policy, failing to locate and reconcile their findings within the complexities of our social and political realities. The time has come in the market-versus-state debate to recall that the point should not be the adoption of one program or another, but rather the well-being of our children and our mutual society. Returning the focus to this larger question, however, requires that researchers, policymakers, and politicians acknowledge the right and necessity for all of us to participate. As the contributors to Visions of Entitlement so richly illustrate, none of us, alone, can pretend to hold the answers. Venues must be found to bring all the stakeholders — families, policymakers, economists, legal scholars, practitioners, and others — to the table, in mutual respect and tolerance, to address these issues. It is, after all, one common future that we will inevitably create.


    Boyer, E. L. (1991). Ready to learn: A mandate for the nation. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

    Boyer, P. (1978). Urban masses and moral order in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Edelman, Marian Wright. (1994). Cease fire! Stopping the war against children. Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin, 68(2), 18–23.

    Kagan, S. (1987). Home school linkages: History's legacy and the family support movement. In S. L. Kagan (Ed.), America's family support program (pp. 161–181). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

    National Governors' Association Action Team on School Readiness. (1992). Benchmarks for educational success. Washington, DC: National Governors' Association.

    Wolfe, A. (1989). Whose keeper? Social science and moral obligation. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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    Spring 1995 Issue


    Change without Difference
    School Restructuring in Historical Perspective
    By Jesse Goodman
    Reading the World of School Literacy
    Contextualizing the Experience of a Young African American Male
    By Arlette Ingram Willis
    Why the "Monkeys Passage" Bombed
    Tests, Genres, and Teaching
    By Bonny Norton Peirce and Pippa Stein
    The Reading Campaign Experience within Palestinian Society
    Innovative Strategies for Learning and Building Community
    By Munir Jamil Fasheh
    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.