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We Americans Neglect Our Children

Individually, we adore and pamper our children. We shuttle them from soccer practice to music lessons and then organize their play dates with meticulous fanaticism.

Yet collectively, we mistreat America’s children, especially by the standards of other wealthy countries. When we’re formulating policies for children as a whole rather than coddling our own little angels, we fall scandalously short. We prize children in the abstract but as a society tend to ignore their needs. Children are more likely to go hungry or live in poverty in America than in most of our peer countries, and they are also much more likely to die — because of drugs, guns, accidents and an inequitable health care system.

If the United States simply had the same mortality rates for young people as the rest of the rich world, we would annually save the lives of at least 40,000 Americans age 19 and under, according to Steven Woolf, a population health expert at Virginia Commonwealth University. In other words, an American child dies about every 13 minutes because we don’t do as good a job as our peers in protecting kids.

And it’s getting worse. An American child’s chances of reaching adulthood have fallen in recent years, Woolf told me.

This election year, these are issues that should be central in the battles between Democrats and Republicans. They’re not, for children don’t vote and are political orphans.

The consequences are felt not just by low-income children at the margins. A country as a whole can’t thrive when so many are left behind. What distinguished the United States for more than a century and helped it become the world’s leading economy was strong mass education that included widespread high school and college attendance, even as some European countries did better with elite education. But over the last 50 years we’ve faltered in supporting and educating children overall as other countries have moved ahead.

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