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How America fails children

US public policy is a disaster on guns — and so much more.

A woman hugs a girl as they cry during a vigil for the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 25.
Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

In ways big and small — in schools, in homes, in every facet of life — the United States fails to protect and support its children.

School shootings, like the massacre in Uvalde, Texas, that has left 19 students and at least two adults dead this week, are one of the most visceral examples of that failure. A second generation is now growing up in a world where school shootings are part of life. Columbine didn’t lead to meaningful policy change; neither did Sandy Hook; neither did Parkland; and the terrible truth is that Uvalde may not either.

The number of children killed by guns every day in the United States, in incidents that never make national news, is much higher than the death toll of victims in school shootings. The firearm homicide rate for US children ages 0-14 is astronomical compared to other wealthy nations, according to data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, with hundreds of budding American lives lost every year. Suicides by gun and accidental firearm deaths among kids are also far higher in the United States than its economic peers. Guns now kill more kids than car accidents, in part because, through design changes and new regulations, cars have gotten safer while guns have only become more accessible and lethal.

Dylan Scott/Vox

But this country’s inability to support and protect its own kids extends far beyond gun deaths, which can also be seen as part of a broader failure to prioritize the well-being of children and families.

“From the very beginning of life, we expect families to take care of their own children,” Jessica Calarco, a sociologist at Indiana University who studies child and family policy, said. “The government is essentially telling families: You’re on your own. We don’t care.”

Many of these failures are long term. But the past few months have made them inescapable. Less than six months ago, Congress allowed the expanded child tax credit — one of the most successful policy experiments in reducing child poverty in US history — to expire. Children are still waiting for a Covid-19 vaccine, as frustration with the regulatory agencies overseeing that process grows. And America is currently importing baby formula from Europe because its own market has allowed an enormous shortage to develop in the last year, putting the health of infants and children at risk.

Natalia Restrepo, right, speaks to a mother about baby formula, at a food pantry run by La Colaborativa in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on May 20.
Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

By the end of the summer, federal funding that has provided free school lunches to almost every American student for the past two years will run out without being renewed. Emergency Medicaid provisions that were instituted during the pandemic could expire too, leading to as many as 6.7 million children losing health coverage.

The consequences of the collective policy shortcomings are everywhere. One is the terrible annual toll of US children and young adults killed by guns: 10,186 in 2020. Another is that one in five children in the US live in poverty, comparable to Chile and Romania, and double (or more) the rate of child poverty of Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany. Infant mortality is higher than in the rest of the wealthy world.

The OECD published an analysis in November 2017, evaluating how the US compared to other rich countries on various metrics of child well-being. America ranked in the top third for just three of the 20 categories they covered. It was in the bottom third for 10 of them.

Academics have an ironic term for this phenomenon: “American exceptionalism.”

“We stand alone and we have for decades in terms of our disinvestment in children,” Jennifer Glass, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, told me. “You muck it up for the first 20 years of that kid’s life, you can’t come back and remedy it.”

The reasons for this uniquely American failure are multifold. The solutions will not be easily attained. But until we resolve to fix it, our future will be that much dimmer.

American public policy doesn’t value children

Rhetoric is cheap. If you want to know where a society’s priorities truly lie, look at how it spends its money.

About 9 percent of the federal budget is being spent on children, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. The elderly, on the other hand, are afforded more than one-third of federal spending.

“It’s very little,” Isabel Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution who focuses on child and family programs, said of federal spending on children. “We haven’t been doing enough for our kids.”

Spending for elderly programs like Medicare and Social Security is automatic; Congress never has to pass a new bill to make sure those benefits reach Americans over 65. But most of the spending for children is discretionary; Congress must vote to appropriate those dollars every year and, if there is a lapse in funding, there will be a corresponding lapse in benefits.

Taken together, the federal welfare programs for children and families — everything from food stamps to cash assistance to health coverage — are a pittance compared to what our economic peers spend. Australia spends about 2.1 percent of its GDP on public policies and programs that support families. Norway spends 3.2 percent, as does the United Kingdom. The US spends 0.6 percent, less than Costa Rica and Mexico.

Deborah Jendrasko gives out free lunches to students at Deering High School in Portland, Maine, in July 2021. The meals were available to students in summer programs as well as any children from the community.
Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Child welfare programs are also means-tested, accessible only for those who complete a burdensome application process, which creates a uniquely American stigma around government assistance, as Jack Meserve wrote in an essay for Democracy last year. Calarco said she has interviewed families who declined to apply for free or reduced-price school lunches because they didn’t want their children looked down on. (High-poverty schools can offer free lunch to all students without needing to prove eligibility, but that doesn’t help all poor kids and families.)

Schools — even schools whose names don’t become cultural bywords for the mass death of children — are another forum for America’s failures.

In the aggregate, the US spends a comparative amount of money on children’s education to other wealthy nations — but that money is not spent equitably. School funding is a patchwork of federal, state, and local dollars; much of the local money is dependent on local property values (read: taxes). And school funding differs dramatically from state to state and district to district; some school districts spend as little as $6,000 every year for each student and some spend close to $30,000; in some states, low-income districts get less money than high-income ones. The actual education outcomes that American students attain for that spending are middling.

The way our public policies affect parents also affects their children. The United States is also the only wealthy nation without guaranteed paid family leave or paid sick leave, both of which limit a parent’s ability to bond with and take care of their child.

Two other American crises, the opioid crisis and mass incarceration, provide another example: A recent study from researchers at the University of Maryland and UCLA found that higher local rates of opioid overdose deaths corresponded to a lower rate of children living with two married parents, a family structure associated with better life outcomes. Another paper from sociologists at Washington University in St. Louis and Duke University found that families with a family member imprisoned were worse off, even accounting for preexisting disadvantages: they are more likely to face financial hardship, and their children are more likely to have mental health and behavioral problems and to do worse in school than their peers.

America is capable, in a moment of crisis, of providing better support for children and families. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Congress temporarily approved an expanded child tax credit that functioned as a monthly stipend for many families and funded universal school lunches. Emergency Medicaid provisions also ensured health coverage for millions of children and their family members.

Melissa Roberts fixes dinner for her children at their home in Marks, Mississippi, in January. Roberts lost her job at an insurance company at the start of the pandemic. She had relied on the federal child tax credit to help provide for her children.
Andrea Morales/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Child poverty and hunger fell, even amid the most catastrophic public health emergency of our lives. It was a wildly successful policy experiment. And yet soon, those programs will be allowed to lapse.

“It’s telling that that’s what we got rid of,” Calarco said. “We got rid of the programs we made universal during the pandemic.”

Why the US is so negligent in its treatment of its own kids

America’s policy negligence toward its children is, in some ways, a symptom of its general conservative attitude about government assistance. We have a stingy safety net for the childless poor too.

“To my mind, the lack of US social policy pertaining to the safety and well-being of families and children boils down to our distrust of government and our belief that family life is a private and personal matter,” said Daniel Carlson, a sociologist at the University of Utah. “We see children not as the public good that they are but as an individual choice, and thus a personal responsibility.”

That ideology places an enormous burden on parents — and mothers in particular — to carry the weight of raising their children. In the US, about 70 percent of mothers are the primary support for their children in their first year, Glass said. That dependence lasts for five years on average, about a third of their childhood.

“What we’ve seen over time: more and more and more of this burden falling onto mothers,” Glass said. “We expect that mothers will do all of this labor of creating and reproducing the next generation for free because they always have.”

But Australia is also a country with an individualistic spirit and a self-mythology about pioneers conquering the frontier, and that country still spends four times as much money on public programs for children and families, as a share of its GDP, as America does. Germany used to be much more conservative in its public support for families, Carlson said, until its declining birth rate in the 1990s and early 2000s led the country to start remaking its social safety net for children.

Some experts see more nefarious forces at work. For one, a smaller safety net benefits the rich and corporations, who would be called upon to pay higher taxes if the US decided that it would provide more financial support for children and families.

Christina Darling prepares a snack with her sons at home in Nashua, New Hampshire, in July 2021. Darling and her family qualified for the expanded child tax credit. “Every step closer we get to a livable wage is beneficial,” Darling told the AP.
Elise Amendola/AP

Then there is old-fashioned American racism, which almost every expert I spoke cited as an influence. There is a perception, even among white working-class families who also rely on government benefits, that these social programs primarily benefit Black and brown families. Sawhill said she had participated in focus groups in which that sentiment became apparent.

Though they might not articulate it in exactly this way, she said, she got the impression that many white people, even poorer ones, thought that “we wouldn’t have so much poverty and inequality if we weren’t such a heterogenous country.”

There is something self-destructive about America’s negligence of its own children. Supporting children — feeding them, educating them, protecting them from violence — is self-evidently good. But it is also necessary to securing a next generation of American adults, who will perpetuate our economy, our culture, our society.

And yet, the United States seems to be self-sabotaging through its failure to do so. The children who grow up hungry and in poverty, whose schools fail to fully educate them, will on average live shorter lives with dimmer economic prospects.

“Generation after generation, you start to see the United States slipping,” Glass said. “These are the kinds of things that over time are going to hurt a nation.”

One explanation won’t suffice. But what is clear is that the structural forces that stand in the way of so many policy reforms have also made America a worse place for our children.

That fact is unavoidable at times like this, when the US’s failure to meaningfully constrain gun ownership and the number of guns in circulation has contributed to the deaths of 19 innocent children in Uvalde, Texas. But it was true on Monday, the day before the shooting, and it will continue to be true until the nation’s leaders decide to change it.

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