The other day a correspondent asked me a good question: What important issue aren’t we talking about? My answer, after some reflection, is the state of America’s children.
Now, it’s not entirely fair to say that we’re ignoring the plight of our children. Elizabeth Warren, characteristically, has laid out a comprehensive, fully financed plan for universal child care. Bernie Sanders, also characteristically, says he’s for it but hasn’t provided details. And as far as I can tell, all the other Democratic presidential candidates support doing more for children.
But policy toward children has attracted far less media attention than the debate over “Medicare for All,” which won’t become reality anytime soon — let alone the so-called Warren-Sanders “spat.” And my guess is that even well-informed voters have little sense of the grim exceptionalism of America’s child-oriented policies, which are Dickensian compared with those of every other advanced country.
A few numbers may be in order here.
Every advanced country mandates some form of paid leave for new mothers, typically three or four months — every country, that is, except the United States, which offers no maternity leave at all.
Most advanced countries devote substantial sums to benefits for families with children; in Europe these benefits average between 2% and 3% percent of gross domestic product. The corresponding number for the United States is 0.6% of GDP.
Even where the United States does help children, the quality of that help tends to be poor. There have been many comparisons between French and American school lunches: French schoolchildren are taught to eat healthy meals; American children are basically treated as a disposal site for farm surpluses.
What’s especially striking is the contrast between the way we treat our children and the way we treat our senior citizens. Social Security isn’t all that generous — there’s a good case for expanding it — but it doesn’t compare too badly with other countries’ retirement systems. Medicare actually spends lavishly compared with single-payer systems elsewhere.
So America’s refusal to help children isn’t part of a broad opposition to government programs; we single out children for especially harsh treatment. Why?
The answer, I’d suggest, goes beyond the fact that children can’t vote, while seniors can and do. There has also been a poisonous interaction between racial antagonism and bad social analysis.
These days, political support for programs that aid children is surely hurt by the fact that less than half the population under 15 is non-Hispanic white. But even before immigration transformed the U.S. ethnic landscape, there was a widespread perception that programs like Aid to Families With Dependent Children basically helped Those People — you know, the bums on welfare, the welfare queens driving Cadillacs.
This perception undermined support for spending on children. And it went along with a widespread belief that aid to poor families was creating a culture of dependency, which in turn was the culprit behind social collapse in U.S. inner cities. Partly in response, aid to families, such as it was, increasingly came with work requirements, or took the form of things like the earned-income tax credit, which is linked to earnings.
The result was a decline in assistance for the poor children who needed it most.
At this point, however, we know that cultural explanations of social collapse were all wrong. Sociologist William Julius Wilson argued long ago that social dysfunction in big cities was caused not by culture but by the disappearance of good jobs. And he has been vindicated by what happened to much of the U.S. heartland, which suffered a similar disappearance of good jobs and a similar surge in social dysfunction.
What this means is that we’ve established a basically vicious system under which children can’t get the help they need unless their parents find jobs that don’t exist. And a growing body of evidence says that this system is destructive as well as cruel.
Multiple studies have found that safety-net programs for children have big long-term consequences. Children who receive adequate nutrition and health care grow up to become healthier, more productive adults. And in addition to the humanitarian side of these benefits, there’s a monetary payoff: Healthier adults are less likely to need public aid and are likely to pay more in taxes.
It’s probably too much to claim that helping children pays for itself. But it surely comes a lot closer to doing so than tax cuts for the rich.
So we should be talking a lot more about helping America’s children. Why aren’t we?
At least part of the blame rests with Bernie Sanders, who made Medicare for All both a progressive purity test and a bright shiny object chased by the news media at the expense of other policies that could greatly improve American lives, and are far more likely to become law. But it’s not too late to refocus.
Whoever becomes the Democratic nominee, I hope he or she will give our nation’s shameful treatment of children the attention it deserves.
Paul Krugman, Ph.D., winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.