How America Treats Its Own Children

Child poverty, homelessness, violence, obesity, illness: The United States is already an outlier.

Loren Elliott / Reuters

How could the United States do this? How could it separate 2,000 children from their parents, perhaps never to be reunited? How could it lose track of thousands more? How could it keep children in cages, in tents, in camps? This is a country that has assimilated wave after wave of immigrants and refugees, so that children might have a better life than their parents. This is the wealthiest civilization that the world has ever known, one with a bipartisan commitment to equality of opportunity for all—especially kids. This is a country that spends more on education, health care, and defense than any other.

And yet.

This is a country that professes to care about children at their youngest and most fragile. But here, for every 100,000 live births, 28 women die in childbirth or shortly thereafter, compared with 11 in Canada. This ratio has more than doubled since 1990, despite the medical advances made in those decades, where it has gone down in other high-income countries. Black women are three times as likely to die giving birth or shortly after birth as white women. Black women in the United States die having a child at roughly the same rate as women in Mongolia.

It is a country that professes to care for babies. But in the United States, the infant death rate is twice as high as in similarly wealthy countries. Premature birth and low birth weight are common ailments, with lifelong and even intergenerational effects.

This is a country that attempts to support low-income mothers with tax benefits, food stamps, health insurance, and the Women, Infants, and Children program. Still, it spends less of its gross domestic product on family benefits than all other OECD countries, save for Mexico and Turkey, which are far, far less wealthy. It spends less than half as much as Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Sweden. It is also a rarity in largely declining to give parents cash payments to prevent against poverty, as most other high-income countries do. In France, a dual-income household or a single parent earning less than $48,000 a year gets a cash payment of $1,100 for each birth. Lower-income parents also receive three years of monthly payments to help cover their kids’ bills. (There are several other programs for lower-income and all-income parents, too.) The United States, in contrast, does not guarantee impoverished parents welfare. Indeed, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program now provides benefits to fewer than one in four poor families. In Louisiana, it is just one in 25.

As a result, the United States has a higher child poverty rate than nearly all other OECD countries, two, three, or even four times as high as in nations comparable in terms of per capita income. As many as 1.5 million families caring for three million kids live on less than $2 per person, per day, in cash income. In a given year, one in every 30 children in the United States experiences homelessness, a statistic that translates to 2.5 million kids.

Still, it professes to support mothers, and encourages them to keep working when they have children. It has no paid maternity, parental, and home-care leave entitlement. It is the only OECD country for which that is true. Hungary had 160 weeks of paid parental leave all the way back in 1970, and still does today. The United States has none. A large share of American mothers return to work just days after giving birth.

As for early-childhood programs, the United States is committed; both Democratic and Republican administrations say they support them. France, New Zealand, and the Nordic countries spend more than 1 percent of their GDP on early-childhood programs, with the United States spending less than half that amount. This has any number of effects, among them reducing the workforce participation and earnings of American mothers, and reducing the educational attainment and health outcomes of American children. Social scientists argue that early-childhood programs are among the best investment a government can make.

America insists it cares about children’s health. In some states, 10 or even 15 percent of children have no form of health insurance. That limits their access to health care, including to vaccinations. Obesity among American kids is described as an “epidemic,” and 13 million American children struggle with food insecurity. American teenagers are 82 times more likely to die from a gun homicide than their peers in other rich nations. The United States’s infant and child death rates translate into 600,000 “excess deaths” over the past half-century. About 2,000 American children a year die from child abuse or neglect.

Then, there are American schools, touted as powerful expressions and engines of its commitment to equality. The “poverty gap” in standardized test scores is 40 percent larger today than it was a generation ago. Students from the United States rank in the bottom third of OECD countries in terms of reading and mathematics, and only three in five American students are proficient in those subjects by eighth grade. It is common practice to link school funding to property taxes—thus ensuring that rich kids have more resources than poor kids in the public-school system.

The United States says it does not believe in separating children from their parents unless absolutely necessary. Until a generation ago, the government ran boarding schools to assimilate Native American children who were forcibly taken from their parents. On any given day, nearly half a million children are living in foster care, with about 20,000 living in group homes. The system is rife with racial inequality, and experts argue that the United States’ extraordinary tolerance of child poverty is one driver of its family-separation rates.

So, too, is its criminal-justice system, meant to protect society’s most vulnerable. The country has the highest incarceration rate on Earth, higher even than in, say, the authoritarian state of Turkmenistan. Nearly two million children have a parent behind bars, with profound effects on those children’s emotional well-being, health, later educational attainment, and earning potential. “The growth in incarceration of men with children contributes to higher rates of homelessness among black children in particular by thinning family finances and placing additional strains on mothers,” one report from the Vera Institute of Justice found. “When a mother is incarcerated, her children often end up in foster care, separated from their family. Furthermore, while a stay in jail may cause a person to lose wages or work, the stigma of an arrest record—even without a conviction or charge—continues after release, with a negative effect on his or her pursuit of employment.”

The United States also insists it cares about the rehabilitation of children who have committed crimes. It leads the world in putting minors behind bars. “Across the country, states treat very young children just like adults in the criminal justice system—with the same punishments ahead of them,” writes Sarah Mehta of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Fourteen states have no minimum age for when a child can be prosecuted and punished as an adult. In some cases, children as young as eight years old have been tried as adults for committing a crime. Children confined in adult prisons are in an even more vulnerable situation, forced to grow up too fast in a dangerous environment where they are significantly more at risk for sexual assault and suicide.” The United States is the only country that has not ratified  the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The American state has chosen to separate 2,000 children and counting from their parents at the border, with no detailed plan to return them. Legal experts started warning of “the pervasive abuse and neglect of unaccompanied immigrant children” during the Obama administration. The United Nations’s top human-rights official is demanding the Trump administration stop the practice. But is it such a surprise, given what Americans choose for their own?