Great Democratic presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy extolled young people as a national inspiration deserving expansive investment. Bill Clinton led a relentless panic attack against the young, backed by crackdown policies and fiscal divestiture. Though blessed with a flush economy and treasury, Clinton’s grim legacy is massive child destitution, record homelessness, our worst adult drug abuse crisis ever, and a public needlessly terrified of a good generation of kids.
Clinton’s promising presidency began with initiatives to establish national health insurance, resurrect the superlative youth conservation corps, ban gun possession by violent adults, and cut taxes for working families. But Congressional and electoral setbacks quickly reduced Clinton to demagoguery: demonizing the young and poor, petty moral hypocrisies, crowd-pleasing cure-alls, sadly lost opportunity.
During the ‘90s, the most ludicrous anti-youth denigrations became high-level wisdom. Clinton’s 1994 Welfare Reform Task Force fabricated a “Democratic family values” image blaming poorer teenage mothers for every conceivable social problem, and Republicans gleefully helped Clinton dismantle traditional federal entitlements guaranteeing children healthy living standards. Result: young people benefited less from the economic boom and remain dangerously vulnerable to coming downturn.
White House drug policy czar Barry McCaffrey escalated the Democratic “war on drugs” (crueler than Reagan-Bush’s) by hyping teen drug abuse as “exploding” while adult rates declined; meanwhile, Drug Abuse Warning Network reports showed adult drug deaths, hospitalizations, serious crime, and imprisonments skyrocketed to record heights while teens remained low risk. Administration crime consultant James Alan Fox recklessly terrorized policymakers and citizens with wild exaggerations of murderous adolescent “sociopaths” marauding ghetto and suburb alike; yet, FBI reports showed youths committed just 7% of murders (nearly all among the poorest fractions) while masses of “middle-aged superpredators” drove the 1980s-90s crime surge. The president histrionically painted isolated school gunboys as typical of today’s students yet was silent on the domestic violence scourge that killed 10,000 kids during his reign.
Attorney General Janet Reno popularized the debunked “demographic fallacy” that more teens threaten more mayhem; crime reports showed more kids brought less violence. White House AIDS officials declared teens the fastest growing HIV-infected population; Centers for Disease Control reports showed teens the fastest declining HIV infectees. Vice-president Al Gore and Health Secretary Donna Shalala waxed florid on “protecting our precious children from tobacco” while party coffers gobbled millions in donations from tobacco giants pleased with Democrats’ loud-talk do-nothing rhetoric. Clinton and minions trumpeted youth curfews, boot camps, prosecuting youths as adults, executing 16 year-olds, school uniforms, mass drug-testing, V-chips, movie censorship, flashy anti-drug “messages,” abstinence-only sex education, and “zero tolerance;” careful research now shows these panaceas are worthless to counterproductive.
Clinton’s greatest shame is not his sexual liaison with an insecure young subordinate (pious Republicans also proved “personally irresponsible”), but his shallow meanness vilifying a good youth generation struggling with unstable adults and a hostile political climate. Equally shameful is the collaboration of major institutions, academics, and media in presidential and congressional bullying. Clinton’s poll-driven skill in reaping political hay by distorting troubling social problems and pushing platitudes instead of sound policy leaves marginal populations exposed to recurrent crises.
Amazingly, amid grownup disinvestment and chaos, the younger generation shows quarter-century declines in crime and drug abuse, improved school performance, and renewed civic spirit. Kids held families together even as adults unhinged (witness Chelsea). Predictably, the same interests whose self-serving prejudices created more misery for young people now clamor for credit for improving teen behaviors they hampered. Youths themselves deserve the credit, along with the good parents and good programs that realized the officialdom bewailing “this generation at risk” was really profiteering from risk.
Clinton the Democrat betrayed the young and poor, championing “values” that channeled rising hundreds of billions of dollars to elder and corporate welfare while relegating youths to volunteers, “messages,” and cops. May George Bush the conservative contravene expectations in the opposite direction by restoring solid public investment and confidence in our fine young people.
Mike Males, Justice Policy Institute senior researcher, taught “California Youth in Transition” at UC Santa Cruz and authored “Kids and Guns:” How Politicians, Experts, and the Media Fabricate Fear of Youth (Common Courage Press, due March 2001). E-mail: email@example.com.