How to Burden the Children: Let me count the ways

The UN released its new report on child poverty and the US doesn’t fare well: 2nd from the bottom, trailed only by Romania. How can this be? After all, we are the world’s wealthiest country.

The report breaks out government expenditures on programs that serve children and their families as a percentage of GDP. It turns out that the US spends only about 1% of its GDP on such programs and services, while some European and Scandinavian countries spend above 3%. Among the OECD countries, only Lithuania, Latvia, Greece and Malta spend less than we do. The myth of a safety net in this country is just that — a myth. We need to face the fact that it is in shreds.

As the authors say in their conclusion, page 10:

A society that fails to support parents in the task of protecting the years of childhood is a society that is failing its most vulnerable. It is also a society that is storing up intractable social and economic problems for the years immediately ahead.

But  most headlines about how we are burdening our children with a challenging future, ignore the disgraceful high poverty and poor health of our children. Instead we are told that the biggest burden we are passing on to our children is our federal debt. The solution, we are told, is to cut the deficit starting now — by reducing programs that help today’s children with food, housing, education, health care and just basic needs for human dignity. But as evidence like the UN report show, these short-term savings will result in dramatic increases in government spending to cope with so many children reaching adulthood with multiple deficits that are almost all preventable.

Is our choice really to stunt children even further today in hopes of a brighter future tomorrow? Does the road to balancing the budget have to include increasing the economic and health burdens on our children?

There is another way. Let the tax breaks for high income individuals and couples expire in December, cut off the endless corporate tax loopholes, implement a financial transitions tax, enact a reasonable estate tax and use the revenue to reinvest in our children and our future.

We know that children who live in healthy families, in healthy communities and attend good neighborhood schools are far more likely to contribute to the economic health of a nation in the long run. The Scandinavian countries figured this out decades ago and pulled their countries out of poverty. We knew it in the 50s and 60s yet seem to have had a memory lapse and an inability to really look at the data. Reports like the UN’s make it clear that investing in the economic health of women and children is the best way to reduce the economic burdens of future generations. It will take more revenue, but that’s a burden we should happily shift off our children.

Scott Klinger, Policy Director for Wealth for the Common Good, contributed to this post.