Modest Proposal: A Politics of Babies


Since at least the late seventies, babies have been at the center of political debate. By defining embryos as babies and defining abortion as murdering them, right-wing politicians have captured the hearts and political energy of many good-hearted Americans. But there are other, more generous ways to put babies at the center.

We do not need to have babies or even like babies to base a politics on them. We all once were babies, and we are who we are only because we were fed, changed, picked up, and spoken to at a key time in our lives. The world is the way it is in part because what was done and not done for babies. Thinking in terms of babies eases the paralyzing complexity of thinking through social problems without the violations such simplifications usually cause. Regardless of their race, class, gender or sexuality, for example, babies need much the same thing: to be fed.

Mercifully, we have forgotten what our first four weeks of life felt like: the sudden, terrifying need for food which only another can provide. We can debate whether fetuses are people; no one doubts that babies are people, and no one who has been in the room with a hungry infant can deny that babies need to be fed.

Focusing on the hunger of babies would stop the argument about the responsibility the poor bear for their own condition. Babies cannot be held to account for the bad choices they (or their governments) may have made. We cannot say that “able-bodied” babies ought to be at work, not taking government hand-outs. We cannot say about babies, as Governor Wilson has said about other poor people, that cutting government payments will mean only that they can buy fewer six-packs of beer.

The appalling but politically powerful statements we hear all the time—about how the poor should have fewer children, how they should go back to school or to Mexico, how they are buying caviar and television sets with their welfare payments, how they have become dependent on the government—become ridiculous when you remember that a high proportion of the poor are babies. To be exact, half the babies born in Santa Cruz County are born into poverty, according to calculations by the Campaign to End Childhood Hunger.

The hunger of babies cannot be criticized or reasoned with. Babies cannot be told that they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, learn English, budget their allotment, or wait until a better budget year. Babies are elemental, living in a permanent present. Starving, their suffering is absolute.  (Preventing hunger is, of course, not just about preventing suffering. It is about resistance to disease, about physical growth, about brain development, about the freedom to think about anything but hunger.)

A politics based on babies could imply environmentalism, anti-militarism, economic justice. A politics based simply on the hunger of babies calls into question world-wide agricultural practices, under which small farmers in Mexico are bought out by corporations which grow fruits and vegetables for export, cactus for cosmetic companies, not corn for subsistence.  It would critique whole cash-crop economies—grapes for French wine grown in Algeria, coffee in Latin America, cocaine in Columbia. It would question the replacement of orchards with used car lots and housing developments in San Jose. For to feed little babies, we need to feed mothers; if we want to go so far as to feed toddlers as well, we also need that corn, that fruit, that piece of ground.

Such a politics would rule out the withholding of food aid for political reasons in Ethiopia, in Somalia, would rule out the selling of food aid on the black market, would rule out the use of food as a weapon altogether. It would allow the recent initiative by the U.N. to supply food to armed combatants in Somalia: Otherwise, hungry soldiers keep it from the starving women and children in the country. Some of those armed and fighting are children, according to the New York Times.

Such a politics would call into question the practice of farm subsidies for dairy farmers not to produce. It would prohibit the criminal waste of cosmetically imperfect fruits and vegetables, the disposal of day-old bread. It would preclude the bombing of formula factories and supply lines in Iraq.

It would make unthinkable the recent budget cuts in the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) Program, which was originally designed to serve all low-income women, infants and children under six with a dietary deficiency. Recent federal cuts have required the program now to assist only pregnant or breast-feeding women, infants, and children under three with not only a dietary deficiency but a documented medical problem resulting from inadequate nutrition. Thus, according to Wendy Bowers, Director of WIC, the program is now focused on the medical problems it was intended to prevent. Santa Cruz is particularly hard-hit: in the U.S., 55% of eligible women and children receive WIC assistance. In California, 36% of those eligible receive it. In Santa Cruz County, only 30% receive it. Since July, the program has had to drop 1000 children from its rolls.

We are talking about very little here. In a month, five gallons of milk. Two pounds of cheese. Seventy-two ounces of juice. Two dozen eggs. Thirty-six ounces of cereal. One pound of beans or peanut butter. Etc. George Bush has promised an increase for this election year, but then no more increases for the next three years.

The advantage of working on hunger is that it is indisputable. While we can argue about what else is good for babies—day care or not, Bible stories or not, it is hard to argue that a malnourished nursing mother should not have five gallons of milk.




Published in the Santa Cruz Magazine, March, 1992.