Nicholas Kristof: Our children deserve better

When a 2-year-old Guatemalan boy had trouble staying silent in an immigration courtroom, the judge pointed his finger at him.

“I have a very big dog in my office, and if you don’t be quiet, he will come out and bite you,” the judge, V. Stuart Couch, a former Marine, yelled at the toddler in a 2016 hearing, according to a formal complaint shared by the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy and first reported this week by Mother Jones.

“Do you want him to bite you?” Couch asked.

The boy, his mom and their advocate were all soon sobbing. Couch later acknowledged that he “did not handle the situation properly,” according to the judge who investigated the complaint, Deepali Nadkarni.

Clearly, Couch didn’t have a child’s well-being in mind on that day. But ignoring the welfare of our young is a day-to-day problem in America, where our children are falling behind those in other wealthy countries.

On Thursday, 10 Democratic presidential candidates will debate. It would be a natural opportunity to provoke a national conversation on the subject. But a question about child poverty hasn’t been asked at a presidential debate in 20 years, not since a Republican primary debate in 1999, according to the Children’s Defense Fund.

Presidential candidates have been asked about the World Series, about cursing in movies, even about flag lapel pins more recently than they have been questioned about child poverty. We’ve had 147 presidential debates in a row without a single question on the topic. I hope Thursday’s debate won’t be the 148th.

UNICEF says the U.S. ranks No. 37 among countries in well-being of children, and Save the Children puts the United States at No. 36. European countries dominate the top places.

American infants at last count were 76% more likely to die in their first year than children in other advanced countries, according to an article last year in the journal Health Affairs. We would save the lives of 20,000 American children each year if we could just achieve the same child mortality rates as the rest of the rich world.

Half a million American kids also suffer lead poisoning each year, and the youth suicide rate is at its highest level on record.

These problems have been magnified under President Donald Trump, though U.S. policy has shortchanged children as a whole for decades. The Census Bureau reported this week that the number of uninsured children increased by 425,000 last year.

Trump also gave the green light to a pesticide that I call Dow Chemical’s Nerve Gas Pesticide. Formally called chlorpyrifos, it is associated with brain damage among young children. Over the objections of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Trump administration claims it’s safe. So when will we see it sprayed in the White House to handle cockroaches?

James Heckman, a Nobel laureate in economics at the University of Chicago, calculates that investments in early childhood programs for at-risk kids have an astronomical return, because of improved productivity and reduced spending on police forces, courts, jails, special education and health care.

Heckman has a new paper on a North Carolina early childhood program that began in the 1970s, the Abecedarian project, finding an annual return on investment of almost 14%. In another recent paper, he found that the Perry preschool program in Michigan in the 1960s benefited not only the children involved but also, a generation later, their children.

Likewise, one study found that each dollar invested in reducing lead poisoning among children pays for itself at least 17 times over.

Here’s a suggestion for the candidates: Embrace a landmark report this year from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that outlines how to reduce child poverty by half over 10 years. This can be done: Britain under Tony Blair halved child poverty in less than a decade.

The national academies calculate that a combination of job programs and child allowances could cut child poverty in half in the United States at a cost of about $100 billion a year. Yes, that’s a lot of money. But child poverty has an economic cost in crime, lost productivity and other expenses that is at least $800 billion a year, the academies report. The real question isn’t whether we can afford to act, but whether we can afford not to.

We don’t lack the tools to help or the resources. The challenge is just that in our political system, children don’t count — and never get mentioned in presidential debates.

“Kids don’t vote,” notes Nadine Burke Harris, the surgeon general of California and an expert on the lifelong costs of childhood trauma. “They require us to speak for them.”

Nicholas D. Kristof | The New York Times (CREDIT: Damon Winter/The New York Times)

Nicholas Kristof is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.