Childhood Obesity: It’s the Taxpayers’ Fault

The following article originally appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on July 6, 2004.

Always on the lookout for a new crisis, members of the liberal media have now latched onto the cause of childhood obesity. Never mind that Americans as a whole are getting plumper, never mind self-control—after all, this is about the children.

While there is no disputing the rapid growth of childhood obesity and the associated health implications, things become a bit more dicey when it comes to placing responsibility for this problem. Speculation ranges from the obvious (an overindulgence of both TV and fast food) to the ridiculous (there is no place to play). It is this latter “cause” that reveals the nanny-state tendencies of our liberal friends.

In Minnesota, the editorial board for the St. Paul Pioneer Press recently pontificated: “Physical activity has been engineered out of many environments today that are short on open space and even sidewalks.”

In other words, it’s the government’s fault when kids are chubby.

It is no surprise to see that some faithful readers of this bastion of liberalism embraced the idea and are turning it into a cause celebre. One letter to editor read: “For the sake of the children [note: always for the sake of the children] we need a few courageous men and women to stand up and demand that our wealthier citizens shoulder the tax burden to bring back our rough-and-tumble places….instead of lamely leaving the burden, once again, in the hands of parents.”

So it now appears that some parents see themselves as victims and demand that, because they have children, taxpayers owe them playgrounds. It wasn’t always this way.

I grew up in the Midway area of St. Paul during the sixties and seventies. The closest playgrounds —Aldine and Merriam Park—were some distance away and difficult to get to, especially after construction began on Interstate 94. Did my parents demand that taxpayers come to our rescue? No—we just did what kids do—we created places to play. Alleys, front yards, back yards and even the street became stages for kick-the-can, hide and seek, cops and robbers, street hockey, and kick ball. We stayed out for hours, and when the streetlights went on, that was our signal to come home.

Those days are gone—and it is not because of a sinister plot to “engineer” away children’s play spaces. It is because liberal sentencing laws and revolving-door justice policies have created an environment that is unsafe for children.

Years ago, parents didn’t have to worry about psychopathic maniacs preying on their children. Today, we seldom let our children out to enjoy unsupervised play because we have seen too many children abducted by repeat criminal offenders.

According to the National Crime Information Center, the number of children reported missing from 1982 to 2003 increased from 119,488 to 621,058—an increase of 420 percent. About one-fourth of these children were abducted by strangers.

Do you remember Alejandro Avila? He was arrested in California for sexually molesting two little girls. Several witnesses were not allowed to testify, and in desperation the prosecutors pleaded in their final arguments: “Don’t let him get away with this.” He was acquitted and released, and about a year later abducted, raped and murdered little Samantha Runnion, a five-year-old who was playing outside at her grandma’s apartment.

It cannot even be presumed that rural communities in the heartland are safe. Jacob Wetterling was riding his bike in St. Joseph, Minnesota (population 2,200) when he was abducted, never to be seen again. Five-year-old LeeAnna Warner was walking over to a friend’s house in Chisholm (population 5,290) when she disappeared. And, as we saw in the case of college student Dru Sjodin, children are not the exclusive victims of repeat criminals.

Then there are the children who were taken not as they innocently played outside, but who were brazenly abducted from the safety of their own homes. While Elizabeth Smart’s abductor was mentally unbalanced, the man who killed Polly Klass in California had a lengthy criminal record that included three kidnappings and sexual assault. He was released on parole after serving only half of a sixteen-year sentence for one of his kidnappings, and murdered Polly three months later.

For the last three decades, criminal behavior has often been attributed to factors over which the offenders have no control, such as their upbringing or their economic circumstances. Discussions of personal responsibility and being held accountable for one’s actions were often drowned out by pleas of compassion for the accused.

The public is fed up and wants criminals to be held accountable for their actions.

Since this appears to be a hot issue for the Minnesota media, it is fair to ask how the Minnesota legislature has responded. Stricter sentencing guidelines were not passed this legislative session, and through their obstructionist tactics, Senate Democrats are preventing a special session that would include this issue. Senate leader Dean Johnson even stated that he and his fellow Democrats “don’t need anything” in terms of legislative initiatives because they are not up for re-election this fall. While Minnesota Democrats selfishly claim they “don’t need anything,” they have uncharacteristically forgotten the children, who need longer sentences for sexual predators.

If the larger issue is truly child safety, which is the more pressing cause: keeping dangerous criminals locked up or building playgrounds with the hope that kids might lose weight? The answer is easy – playgrounds will be underutilized until criminals are under control and parents know their children are safe.