THE BLOG
05/27/2014 11:33 am ET Updated Jul 27, 2014

Politicians (and Lobbyists) Condone Children Working in America's Tobacco Fields

Well, it's finally happened. A situation is starting to bubble into the public consciousness that has brought me to the very limits of my ability to absorb one more jaw-dropping example of how government has truly abandoned any pretense of protecting or nurturing our children.

The New York Times, in a Sunday editorial, has, in its own venerable way, decried the practice of using kids as young as age seven to work the tobacco fields in Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee. If someone had told me this was a story in The Onion, I wouldn't have been surprised. Really, too absurdly off the wall to have been true. Sadly, this was the Times -- and the editorial writers were deadly serious.

Much of this horror story -- including reports of nicotine poisoning and pesticide exposure among these child tobacco workers -- has been brought to light in a report from Human Rights Watch.

At this point, other news outlets, including most of the broadcast networks and NPR, have also covered the story. According to an ABC story, Philip Morris International, Inc. CEO, André Calantzopoulos, did express concern recommending, apparently, that "More work needs to be done to eliminate child and other labor abuses in tobacco growing." Yeah, good point.

But not all agreed with André. In fact, spokesman for Altria Group -- owner of Philip Morris USA -- Jeff Caldwell, is reported to have said, in effect, that preventing young kids from working tobacco fields "is really contrary to a lot of the current practices that are in place in the U.S. and is at odds in these communities where family farming is really a way of life."

I get it. There are hundreds of thousands of kids and youth under 18 who do, in fact, work on the farms. They get up early and work hard milking, fence mending, planting -- whatever might be necessary to help mom and dad in the tough business of running a productive, small-scale agricultural enterprise. And let's face it: even this kind of work has been shown to put children at risk of trauma and illness. But putting second-graders who happen to be the children of migrant workers -- immigrants or U.S, citizens -- into the tobacco fields is another story entirely.

Actually the Obama administration did try to stop kids under age 16 from working in tobacco fields. But extraordinary pressure from tobacco state legislators, tobacco companies and their lobbyists succeeded in keeping regulation from seeing the light of day. I guess that was that.

At this point, you can't blame Americans for being inured to bad news about the state of children globally -- and in the U.S. We have been hearing for years about the growing, intractable rate of child poverty and homelessness in the U.S and how our kids are falling farther and farther behind peer nations in terms of education or life expectancy. Every day we read about child abuse and neglect. And lousy schools for poor kids. And millions of children not likely to get access to health care, even with full implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

None if this is even remotely acceptable. But not protecting kids from overt nicotine and pesticide exposure is a whole new level of eyes-open, unconscionable disregard for basic decency and objectification of the most disenfranchised children.

I understand, that many Americans, sadly enough, abhor government so much that ending child poverty or guaranteeing universal access to early education or health care is not likely to happen in our lifetimes. And I know that many Americans -- and the politicians who represent them -- refuse to accept the overwhelming scientific evidence that early investment in nutrition, health and education of young children has enormous payoff for children and our nation's future. That, too, is a painful reality.

But for the life of me, I can't see how people who condone putting babies in the tobacco fields can even sleep at night. For that matter, is there a person of faith or possessing an ounce of compassion who thinks that this should ever happen in America?

Time now for some action. Time to confront the politicians who have yielded to the pressures of tobacco farmers who are doing this to children -- anybody's children. The last sentence of the Times editorial states that "Congress and the Obama administration should change the law to restrict child labor in hazardous agricultural work." You think?

This is a crisis for the kids in the fields, but, also a challenge to the basic notion of American compassion and moral standing.

Let's hear from the president, governors and legislators from all political camps. Who among they will stand for protecting children? Surely an overwhelming majority will do the right thing.

They will, won't they?

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