The trouble is that so many of the things that work right are invisible. The fact that a bridge did not collapse is not news. When a young man from a troubled family becomes a responsible worker and parent, that’s not news. When a disease epidemic does not happen, boring. When school children do well in class because they are well nourished, not news. Only the bad stuff is sexy enough for the nightly news.
Many of the things that work right are invisible.
Another problem is that many of the most effective socially important efforts take a long time before they bear fruit. Take the ongoing campaign to rid our environment of lead. This program began in the 1970s, and by the time the babies of those years reached adult years, crime in New York had diminished by 75%, and serial murders by two-thirds. The reason is that many children who might have been brain-damaged by lead, later turning into violent criminals, instead became ordinary citizens, conspicuous by their absence from the nightly news. We don’t even know who such might-have-been criminals are.
In the Bay Area, a young man of 27 was arrested after shaking his baby to death.
The man’s mugshot showed a classic case of a person who suffered brain damage in the womb. His ears are set obviously low on his skull, and the lobes are attached. This is caused by damage to the fetus at an early stage, before the ears move up to their normal position, probably because his mother drank alcohol, smoked, or took drugs while she was pregnant. Such people can also carry several other “marks of Cain”, which can include a single-creased palm, frizzy hair, a short ring finger, and a distinct line on the tongue. (Most of us have one or two such stigmata and other common characteristics of criminals such as low resting pulse rate.) Many such brain-damaged people were badly abused and malnourished as children and did poorly in school, where they were ridiculed; they fell into crime early. The man in this picture probably suffered a similar fate.
It is meaningless to insist that such adults straighten up and fly right. They were born with brain damage, and they were abused and neglected from the first. Their childhoods were awful. They never learned how to behave, and even when they did they were abused. Their own parents probably suffered the same fate, and they didn’t know how to behave either, and were abused. Such people can and should be helped as adults, but it’s far cheaper and vastly more effective to prevent such fates in the first place. But prevention has to be done decades before adult years.
So this man is allegedly guilty of an unforgivable crime, and for that he will be severely punished. But we are also guilty of his crime because if, some decades ago, we had insisted on having extensive social programs in place that were fully funded and staffed with well trained personnel, and charged with finding families who would soon have a baby, but had no experience with how to be an effective adult family, there would be far fewer abused and brain-damaged children. The multi-generation tragedy and a big chunk of crime would have ended with that generation.
We are also guilty of his crime.
Young parents who were themselves abused do not know how to behave, how to be an adult, how to be a parent. They can learn how to prevent fetal brain damage, how to properly care for themselves and their children, but it is highly unlikely to happen by itself. Strong continuing social programs are essential.
The other thing is the cost. Saving fetuses and children from damage and abuse is not easy and not cheap, but consider this: Our most expensive serial killer—one man—cost us $800-million. Eight-hundred-million dollars! For that sum you could fund effective social programs for many decades.
All criminal behavior is expensive. A year of incarceration costs taxpayers a median wage, and there are dozens of other costs for every crime. Around a hundred citizens are called for jury duty for every case. In that light, prevention is a better investment than we’ll ever find on the market, even before we think about the benefits of having attractive young people around that attract no police attention because they are so normal.
We know that saving an at-risk child before birth pays huge dividends, not only in dollars, but in less criminal behavior and more pleasant cities later on. Few expenditures reward our investment so well. But we won’t get these payoffs unless we make the necessary investment, and we’ll have to wait a couple of decades for the payoff.