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In America, Kids Come Last

Original illustration by Maria Hahne

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is the most universally ratified human rights treaty in the history of the United Nations. The treaty lays out childrens’ civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, recognizing that they often cannot defend themselves. Countries that sign the UNCRC are expected to update their laws in alignment with the objectives of the convention and submit periodic reviews to the UN to be held accountable by other member countries. North Korea, Somalia, Russia, South Sudan, Syria, and every other country in the UN have all ratified the convention. Just one country has not: the United States.

The US signed the UNCRC in 1995 but has never been able to ratify it because of two main concerns among Republican senators. The first is that the treaty would infringe upon the rights of parents. Influential parental rights organizations have argued that the Convention would give children protection against spanking, the right to sex education, and the right to choose their own religion, all things that they argue are the right of the parents to decide. The second major issue concerns national sovereignty, as Republican senators worry that ratifying the UNCRC would set a precedent for the US to base its laws on international precedent rather than the Constitution.

In reality, ratifying the treaty would not force the US to change any of its laws. It would be up to American lawmakers to determine how best to align new domestic legislation with the outlined goals of protecting children. The periodic review process would likely submit the US to some public shaming within the UN for failing to comply with various objectives, but the treaty has no actual enforcement power beyond this. Every other country in the world has managed to ratify the treaty in large part because having a legal framework that protects children is important and the risks to sovereignty are negligible. The reasons given for not ratifying the UNCRC in the US are questionable, but the consequences of doing so are material.

Children are worse off in the US compared to other developed countries. The US child poverty rate is considered within the “high range” of the OECD. All of the countries within the OECD that have a higher child poverty rate than the US (Spain, Israel, Chile, and Turkey) have per capita incomes below the OECD average. By contrast, the United States is 5th among OECD countries in per capita income but 30th in child poverty (when the first-ranked country has the lowest rate). Compared to other similarly wealthy countries, the child poverty rate in the US is downright criminal, as it is ten times greater in the United States than in Denmark. If the US’s child poverty rate fell to that of Denmark, roughly nine million children would be lifted out of poverty.

There are a multitude of reasons why some countries have higher child poverty rates than others, and it is worth acknowledging that not every country is demographically equivalent. The United States has a relatively high rate of single-parent households, greater than almost every other OECD country. Single-parent households are significantly more likely to have impoverished children, as it is much more difficult to support a family with one breadwinner instead of two. Still, accounting for the abundance of single-parent households in the US only moves the country to 26th overall in child poverty. There are a number of other demographic quirks in the United States that likely cause minor increases in its child poverty rate, but none can explain why the US is among the wealthiest developed countries but has some of the highest child poverty. That explanation comes from policy choices.

The United States is the only country in the OECD that does not guarantee paid parental leave. During the peak of the pandemic, a child tax credit gave monthly checks to families to support their children, but it looks near-certain that the program will not be made permanent during the Biden presidency. Unlike other countries, the US relies significantly on local funding for schools, meaning that poor children also get poor schools. In other countries, children are guaranteed social welfare programs specifically designed to their needs, so low-income parents still have money to support their children. These programs do not exist in the US, so children are forced to suffer the same poverty as their parents.

The US effectively decided in 1995 to not care for its children with its landmark welfare reform, and it has carried out that promise over the past several decades to devastating effect. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) commented that he could not support a long-term child tax credit in part because he was concerned that parents would waste the money on drugs. Even if one had other fair criticisms of the child tax credit, any one of a number of anti-child poverty programs—like paid parental leave or more equitable school funding—could be implemented to help address the problem. The point is not that any single one of these programs is perfect, but to reject all of them is to effectively guarantee poverty for the nation’s low-income children. American politicians and interest groups have prioritized the right of the parent to do corporal punishment and the right of the government to not give money to the “undeserving” poor over the right of the child to live a decent, healthy life.

Condemning children to poverty has the potential to destroy their lives forever.  Impoverished children are at greater risk for a number of health issues over the course of their life, including “heart disease, hypertension, stroke, obesity, certain cancers, and even a shorter life expectancy.” They also suffer from increased mental health issues and are more likely to struggle in school because of their mental illnesses, leading them to drop out at more than four times the rate of wealthy children. Experiencing poverty as a child nearly guarantees, statistically, at least one issue with learning, emotional, or speech development. Impoverished children are at increased risk of being abused or experiencing some other form of maltreatment. Any policy that makes defenseless children poorer, sicker, die younger, mentally less stable, unable to stay in school, and abused more often should be considered abhorrent, but such is the official policy of the United States.

The problem is not necessarily that any one policy has not been implemented, but rather that American children are always prioritized last. Being the only country not to ratify the UNCRC and having an obscenely high child poverty rate are things that can only happen if lawmakers simply do not care about the rights of the child as much as other issues. Millions will grow up in terribly difficult situations and suffer for the rest of their lives because of lawmakers’ backwards priorities. It is essential that our elected representatives recognize the agony that the nation’s children are subjected to and take appropriate steps to help them.