The federal government's response to the obesity epidemic has been nothing short of ridiculous. But it appears that America's busybodies have been bested by their Australian counterparts. According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the Department of Human Services in Victoria, Australia has removed several severely obese children from their homes, because their health is in jeopardy. The agency says it has intervened and requested court orders to place the children in state care.
Obesity experts have come forward to remind DHS why taking children from their parents is a lousy idea in this case. But not all experts agree. This kind of government overreach is actually considered a legitimate response by some researchers here at home. An editorial published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association defended the idea using the same rationale the DHS in Victoria used. So just in case this anti-obesity measure ever gains traction, let's take a look at a few reasons why it's tremendously idiotic.
Putting aside the obvious legal and logistical problems with this proposal, let's assume that parents are entirely responsible for their children's weight gain, and some kind of intervention is necessary. Putting overweight kids in the foster care system is still not the answer. Though pulling kids out of their homes may help them lose weight, the editorial cites some examples in support, their health and welfare would very likely suffer in other and worse ways. Research shows that children who enter foster care have higher rates of emotional and behavioral disorders, earn less money, and are more likely to become delinquents. According to one study, children in foster homes were worse off than troubled children who stayed with their families. In others words, we'd be swapping overweight kids for thin kids with serious psychological disorders. That hardly sounds like a sensible solution to obesity.
But parents aren't solely responsible for their overweight children, and we should consider how obesity became the problem that is.The rise in childhood obesity we've experienced in the last several decades corresponds very nicely with our increased consumption of grains and other carbohydrates, according to a study published in 2000. As I've noted here many times, there's a simple explanation for that correlation: eating carbs causes weight gain, and the government has been telling us to eat lots of them for a long time. The subsidies paid to corn farmers for many years, which made products like high fructose corn syrup cheap, certainly didn't help the anti-obesity cause either. So instead of stripping parents of their right to raise their kids, the government should just quit telling people to eat unhealthy food.
It's certainly true that poor diet is a serious problem for many Americans today, not just the overweight ones, by the way. But the damage done by bad habits, whether those be poor diet, drug use, or lack of exercise, often takes many years to manifest, and that's because the human body is incredibly resilient. When it comes to consuming too many candy bars and cans of soda, the body responds by accumulating fat in its fat cells, where it is essentially harmless. And as University of Pennsylvania researcher Arthur Caplan points out, if kids are going to be pulled out of their homes, it should be because they are in immediate danger. But obesity clearly doesn't qualify as an immediate danger.
As noted, there isn't yet a massive campaign to get obese children away from their parents. But the fact that the policy has been defended by prominent health researchers and instituted by at least one government should make us think long and hard about how we solve our most pressing problems, and who we trust to do the problem solving. Hopefully we'll figure out that a government powerful enough to split up families isn't the solution to childhood obesity.