Saturday, July 7, 2018

Kids Count, or Do They? Neglecting "Our" Kids (Part I)

The Children Are Watching                                                               

In a previous post, I asserted that the US government’s cruel and  inhumane treatment of immigrant children crossing our border showed a callous view of these Mexican and Central American children as “not our kids.”  Very young children could be ripped away from their parents and shipped off to faraway states, with no plan to reunite them with their asylum-seeking parents or even let their parents know where they are, because these are “other people’s children,” not ours and not our responsibility.

I was right about the cruelty of the treatment – we’ve heard audio tapes of babies and toddlers crying desperately for their mamas. We’ve learned of older children believing their parents have abandoned them, even thinking of killing themselves because of their lack of hope.  Workers in these detention facilities – and in the airlines that transport these child hostages – report feeling anger, guilt, and helplessness as they realize how complicit they are in the separation, in obeying rules not to hug sobbing toddlers or let older siblings comfort younger ones.  As more of these courageous “shelter” workers bring out audio and video confirmation of these conditions, we know we’re right about the cruelty, to say nothing of the un-Constitutionality of this dark moment of the American soul.

But I got the “our kids” part very wrong.  Two new reports – one from the UN and one by an established child-advocacy research organization, show that what the US is doing to these immigrant children is in many ways continuous with our neglect of our own kids.

Nicholas Kristof in his June 28, 2018 New York Times column reminds us that “American systematically shortchanges tens of millions of children, including homegrown kids.”  He cites that American kids are “more likely to be poor, to drop out of high school and even to die young than in other advanced countries.”  He reminds us that we tear apart “homegrown” families through mass incarceration and overuse of foster care. 

And the world knows.  A United Nations study of poverty shows a very direct line between the mistreatment of immigrant kids on our southern border and the severe conditions under which many American children live:  Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights reports that one-fifth of America’s children live in poverty; one-fifth of America’s homeless are children.  Most Americans would not believe that at least 3million American children live in extreme poverty, the global metric for which is $2.00/day. Once a leader in educating and caring for its children, the US now lags behind all its peer countries, and many less “developed” ones, that provide universal health care to children and families. 

The UN’s Philip Alston sees the connection as a lack of compassion.  Apparently the US Ambassador to the United Nations is eager to confirm his assessment:  Nikki Haley protested the UN report saying “it is patently ridiculous for the United Nations to examine poverty in America.” 

The Kristof column and the UN report are worth reading in their entirety and forwarding to everyone running for office in the US mid-term elections.  And to everyone who needs to vote.  We must invest in our children.  We must tackle directly those forces that make a few people at the top richer and richer while our children and their families are in poverty and getting poorer.

One immediate investment that should be a bi-partisan priority is early childhood education. According to a World Bank analysis, if the US were to invest in effective early childhood programs, “the lifelong benefits would be so transformative that American inequality could be reduced to Canadian levels” [emphasis added].

That investment should be a given (if Americans can swallow their pride and admit the wisdom of our northern neighbors). But there is  much more to be done – from taxing the rich, regulating environmental pollution and financial institutions, restoring the voting rights act, re-investing in public education and its teachers, and creating meaningful jobs with fair and living wages for the adults in children’s lives.  We must also protect our civil liberties so we all have a voice in this urgent civic project.

The children are watching.  Do they believe we care about them?  See my next post for the new Kids Count report that shines a light into the dark realities of children’s well-being – or lack of it – in Texas.

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