We’re Not Criminalizing Parents. We’re Criminalizing Poverty.

Debra Harrell’s choice isn’t the problem. It’s that she couldn’t afford a different one.

Where are the adults?

Where are the adults?

On Sunday morning, I stopped into a Center City fast-food joint; I’ll not name it for reasons that may soon become clear. I took my breakfast sandwich to a table, not far from where a little girl, probably around 5 or 6, was playing with her dolls.

She was alone.

A group of middle-aged men sitting nearby noticed her as well. “Sweetie, are you here by yourself?” one of them asked. She gave them a wide-eyed blank look, but said nothing. He looked around, stymied for a second. Then: “Where’s your mommy? Is she working here?”

The little girl paused, then nodded slowly. “Okay,” the man said, ready to let the matter go and apparently pleased to not to have started his day with a report to child protective services.

It was a fraught, awkward moment — none of us wants to be the SEPTA passengers who let the “heroin nod” mother walk, but neither do most of us like to interfere in another person’s parenting. Finding the right balance can be tricky.

We are, however, in a moment of talking about that balance. A furor was stirred last week when it was reported that Debra Harrell, an employee at a McDonald’s restaurant in South Carolina, had been arrested for letting her 9-year-old daughter play in a nearby park while she worked her shift. Authorities said Harrell had “abandoned” her daughter and tossed her in jail. And round the nation, pundits began beating their breasts about the “criminalization of parenting.

“She let her daughter play at the park for several hours at a time — like we did as kids,” wrote Lenore Skenazy, sounding a theme that’s been repeated ad nauseam the last week or so. We were independent kids, the trope goes. Why can’t we do the same for our our children?

Which might be a good argument to have, but it completely misidentifies the problem. It’s not parenting that we’re criminalizing. It’s poverty. And of course, that’s a very old story.

See, the problem with Harrell, and my Center City mom, isn’t just that they made unconventional choices regarding their child’s free hours. They (and lots of parents like them) made — and continue to make — those choices because, well, they can’t afford any other choice.

Take Harrell. According to accounts of her story, she couldn’t afford child care for her daughter while working at McDonald’s. (Which, duh.) She’d let the girl stay in the restaurant with a computer to keep her occupied, but when the electronics were stolen, she decided to let her daughter get fresh air instead. Neither option was ideal, but what are you going to do?

Here is where we are as a society: We want — not unreasonably — to see people earn their pay instead of rely on government. That’s the logic of our welfare system.

But it’s also true that the jobs increasingly filled by adults don’t pay well enough to survive. And it’s also true that those low-paying jobs have increasingly turbulent schedules — the kind that leave workers “on call” for unpaid hours and unable to pick up a second job in order to supplement the income.

All of this is great for consumers, who get low-cost meals and goods out of the deal, and for corporations, which maximize their profits by keeping labor costs low. But it leaves too many poor parents at the mercy of a society that might decide they’ve endangered their children by trying to keep those children clothed and fed. That’s obscene.

We need to figure out how we’re going to provide affordable child care options to the working poor. We need to demand workers be given some shielding against the scheduling whims of their employers. We also need to let kids play outside, without an adult, for a couple of hours.

Despite what you hear these days the last problem is not as pressing as the first two. Pundits have, with some exceptions, ignored the poverty angle — probably because “criminalizing parents” lets them beat up the government, while our response to “criminalizing poverty” might require a tax increase in response. But poor working parents need our help. Let’s not send them to jail because of it.

Follow @joelmmathis on Twitter.

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  • phillysportsfan

    back in my day, the only time an adult would have the temerity to talk to a child they didn’t know, in a public setting, would be if the child was crying and appeared to be lost. that was it. otherwise people knew enough to mind their own business.

  • BR

    Here’s a Tip! If you’re part of the working poor you don’t need to have 6 kids that you cant afford to spend money on or time with! Get it together, just because you can have kids doesn’t always mean you should!

  • Tommy Grover

    If a woman chooses not to educate herself and have children with no father, whose problem is it?

    • aster

      And your plan to criminalize men who don’t stay with their kid’s mother is?

  • Charliefoxtrot

    I’m a big fan of Skenazy, but agree that this woman was wrong….unless she had people in tge neighborhood to see if she had any trouble, which isn’t really clear. It also depends on the child. My kids that age could do something like this, but we emphasized who the neighbors are etc etc. a distinction the State cannot make-but since we get the laws we deserve-I.e. a citizenry that self directs itself and who’s citizens are responsible have no need for the overarching govt. we have nowadays.

    Skenazys point is that unless you leave children some autonomy, they continue to be infantilized into adulthood.

    I’m not sure guaranteeing child care for mcdonalds workers would sit well with middle class people who sort themselves out. At the end of the day there will always be issues that can’t be legislated away.
    Certainly the breakdown in marriage rates leads directly to calls like Mathis’s for taxpayer involvement-a direct result of no fault divorce laws and an increasingly childish generation of adults.

  • NotFromPhilly

    Spot on, Joel.



  • hape2b

    Taking the child to work with her was a better option than leaving her alone, at least she was supervised somewhat but it isn’t the answer. There are a lot of subsidized day care programs in this city. It is all based on sliding scales. Life is about choices. It is difficult to work and raise your child or children alone. Some people were married and the spouse died due to illness, or a drunk driver, or was killed by a criminal in the line of duty, or was a fallen soldier. Now mom (or dad) is left alone and has to manage it all. Not every family unit is a fatherless or motherless family because of careless behavior. Maybe the usual babysitter was ill or out of town on vacation and there was no back up sitter. Maybe the person didn’t have a sitter because she took on an extra shift of work to make additional funds. So many what ifs … it doesn’t have to negative. The point is, we need to care for our children. Churches or religious groups or ethnic groups should get together to help out. There are a lot of people who can step up here and help in the community and they don’t. Ultimately, it is the parent who has to make it work. I know – I have 2 children, my spouse died, and I am alone with no family near. I make it work because as the parent, that is what I am supposed to do.

  • medford_resident


  • tonyb

    How stupid do you have to be to decide to ,have a child or children knowing you don’t have the means to support it. Why is it now, somehow, my responsibility?

  • ployski

    Self righteous and indignant folks make me laugh. Should I smack them when I see them eating a philly steak (aka the “road kill” special), because it will give them colon cancer? We are supposed to be adults and responsible for our choices/actions in life. That is why I live in Lower Merion.