Individually, we adore and pamper our children. We shuttle them from soccer practice to music lessons and then organize their play dates with meticulous fanaticism.
Yet collectively, we mistreat America’s children, especially by the standards of other wealthy countries. When we’re formulating policies for children as a whole rather than coddling our own little angels, we fall scandalously short. We prize children in the abstract but as a society tend to ignore their needs. Children are more likely to go hungry or live in poverty in America than in most of our peer countries, and they are also much more likely to die young — because of drugs, guns, accidents and an inequitable health care system.
If the United States simply had the same mortality rates for young people as the rest of the rich world, we would annually save the lives of at least 40,000 Americans age 19 and under, according to Steven Woolf, a population health expert at Virginia Commonwealth University. In other words, an American child dies about every 13 minutes because we don’t do as good a job as our peers in protecting kids.
And it’s getting worse. An American child’s chances of reaching adulthood have fallen in recent years, Woolf told me.
This election year, these are issues that should be central in the battles between Democrats and Republicans. They’re not, for children don’t vote and are political orphans.
The consequences are felt not just by low-income children at the margins. A country as a whole can’t thrive when so many are left behind. What distinguished the United States for more than a century and helped it become the world’s leading economy was strong mass education that included widespread high school and college attendance, even as some European countries did better with elite education. But over the past 50 years, we’ve faltered in supporting and educating children overall as other countries have moved ahead.
We’ve tried to fix problems at the back end, with the juvenile justice system or criminal justice system or with those alerts to look out for human traffickers. But we have entire failed structures, like foster care. Fewer than 5 percent of young people who’ve spent time in foster care graduate from a four-year college. Several studies suggest that up to 60 percent of trafficking survivors have been in the system. Yet when was the last time a politician was asked how to fix foster care?
I’ve been thinking about this because I recently participated in the Summit on America’s Kids and Families hosted by Common Sense Media. James Steyer, the group’s founder, wants to push children onto the local, state and national agenda this year — maybe a million child march on Washington? — so that political candidates are forced to answer questions about our indifference to the well-being of children.
In the closing session at the summit, a few of us talked about what a pro-child agenda might look like. Here are my suggestions:
An early child care program modeled after the one that exists in the U.S. military. If our armed forces can operate a child care program with fees based on ability to pay, then the rest of the country can as well. A government-supported early childhood program rescues parents and kids alike. Roughly one child in six is living with a parent who misused drugs in the last year, and some of these children can find a lifeline in a high-quality program like Educare that also coaches parents. Other rich nations spend an average of about 29 times as much on child care per toddler as the United States.
An expanded refundable child tax credit to cut child poverty. Most other wealthy countries have introduced a monthly child allowance to lift children out of poverty, and the United States followed in 2021 with the refundable child tax credit. This was a huge success that helped slash child poverty almost in half — one of the most successful policies of my lifetime. And then Republican opposition caused the program to expire at the end of 2021, and child poverty has soared again.
A new regulatory body to oversee technology companies and new media, just as the Federal Communications Commission oversees old media. Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado has championed this idea, and it has become urgent as TikTok and artificial intelligence play a growing presence in children’s lives. Young people already face a crisis in mental health that appears correlated to the spread of smartphones and social media. I don’t want to overregulate, but tech companies need oversight as they monetize our children.
Improvements in K-14 education to get every child literate, numerate, graduating from high school and, where possible, into at least community college, the military or technical training. American children are particularly incompetent at math in ways that hold our entire country back. If even Mississippi, with unconscionable child poverty, can focus on reading and significantly raise educational outcomes, then no state has an excuse for letting students fail.
The best metric for a society’s future is how well it nurtures its next generation. So this election year, let’s look beyond the political horse race and culture war to grill candidates on their policies toward children — and thus our country’s future.