Nicholas Kristof: We are a nation of child abusers

Biden plan includes a way to transform America by reducing child poverty.

Imagine you have some neighbors in a mansion down the road who pamper one child with a credit card, the best private school and a Tesla.

The parents treat most of their other kids decently but not lavishly — and then you discover that the family consigns one child to an unheated, vermin-infested room in the basement, denying her dental care and often leaving her without food.

You’d call 911 to report child abuse. You’d say those responsible should be locked up. You’d steam about how vile adults must be to allow a child to suffer like that.

But that’s us. That household, writ large, is America and our moral stain of child poverty.

Some American children attend $70,000-a-year nursery schools, but 12 million kids live in households that lack food. The United States has long had one of the highest rates of child poverty in the advanced world — and then the coronavirus pandemic aggravated the suffering.

Now we could have a thrilling breakthrough: President Joe Biden included a proposal in his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that one study says would cut child poverty by half. We in the news media have focused on direct payments to individuals, but the historic element of Biden’s plan is its effort to slash child poverty.

“The American Rescue Plan is the most ambitious proposal to reduce child poverty ever proposed by an American president,” Jason Furman, a Harvard economist, told me.

A couple of decades from now, America will be pretty much the same whether direct payments end up being $1,000 or $1,400. But this will be a transformed nation if we’re able to shrink child poverty on our watch.

So the most distressing part of 10 Republican senators’ counterproposal to Biden was their decision to drop the plan to curb child poverty. Please, Mr. President, don’t budge on this.

And senators, what are you thinking? Is the supposedly “pro-family” party battling to preserve child poverty?

“So many of them speak about religion and Jesus and children,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who has long pushed for these anti-poverty measures, told me. “How do you leave behind millions of children and their families living in poverty?”

Perhaps some misread the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus says (19:14) “suffer the little children” to approach him; he absolutely does not recommend “the little children shall suffer.”

To their credit, some Republican senators, including Mike Lee of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida, have spoken positively of elements in the Biden plan against child poverty. But overall what’s astonishing is that a program so important to America’s future has received little attention.

“To me, it’s the most transformational thing that’s under discussion, and nobody’s talking about it,” said Luke Shaefer, a poverty expert at the University of Michigan.

The centerpiece of the child poverty plan is an expansion of the child tax credit, up to $3,600 a year for young children. This would cost as much as $120 billion a year and, critically, would be paid out monthly to families that earn too little to pay taxes. Even a sum as modest as $3,600 is transformative for many low-income families.

One reason to think that this would be so successful is that many other countries have used similar strategies to cut child poverty by large margins. Canada’s parallel approach cut child poverty by 20-30%, depending on who’s counting, and Britain under Tony Blair cut child poverty in half.

None of this is simple, and monthly stipends don’t solve all problems. One child in eight lives with a parent struggling with substance abuse. While I’ve seen many families striving to do their best for their children even as they’re crushed by low-wage jobs, I once visited a home in Arkansas in which a boy had three televisions in his bedroom but no food in the house. Love and dysfunction can coexist.

So let’s be honest: The child tax credit would help enormously, but we also need home visiting programs, high-quality preschool, lead reduction, addiction treatment and other support for moms and dads, serious efforts to combat family homelessness, and initiatives to help parents get better jobs in ways that lift them and their children out of poverty.

Maybe you think this is unaffordable? One prominent estimate suggests that child poverty costs the United States about $1 trillion annually in reduced adult productivity, increased crime and higher health care costs — so the question isn’t can we afford to help children, but can we afford not to?

Yes, all this is messy, but other industrialized countries manage to do better than we do at helping children, because those countries make it a priority.

Now we can make it our priority, too, helping children and our country alike. As Furman says, “investments in children are not just a handout but a hand up.” Let’s empower our nation’s children, and stop abusing them.

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

Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.