Traumatizing children is very much “the American way”

Have you looked in the mirror lately?
Have you looked in the mirror lately?
Image: REUTERS / Lucy Nicholson
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

After weeks of growing outrage in the face of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy of separating the children of undocumented immigrants from their parents at the border, the president on Wednesday (June 20) signed an executive order purporting to put an end to the policy his administration created. And yet the crisis is far from over.

The language of the executive order essentially outlines a policy to jail children along with their parents, rather than splitting them up. It also offers no plan for reuniting families. That leaves 2,342 children who have already been forcibly separated from their parents—exposing them to the kind of stress experts say can have serious, negative long-term consequences for their development. This week brought reports of the anguished cries of distressed children in a shelter, released by ProPublica, striking images of dozens of kids locked in cages, and stories of abuse and neglect in federally-funded children’s shelters.

How could this happen in the US, you might ask? It’s simple. The US doesn’t treat its own children well, let alone children who come from other countries.

The state of America’s children

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

Americans say they want to protect children. Children are often the focal point of discussions about the need for political change, on topics ranging from gun violence to health care.

And yet millions of American children suffer every day from abuse, neglect, malnourishment, poverty, and discrimination. In a given year, one in every 30 children in the United States experiences homelessness, which translates to about 2.5 million kids. Every year, 13.1 million American households with children are considered “food-insecure,” meaning they often go without enough food.

It is common to hear bipartisan support among American policymakers for children and maternal health programs. And yet, according to The Atlantic, the United States’s infant and child death rates “translate into 600,000 ‘excess deaths’ over the past half-century.” Every year, an estimated 676,000 children are victims of child abuse or neglect—and a little less than 2,000 American kids die from it.

These types of appalling statistics also apply to mothers. In 2015, an estimated 26.4 mothers died for every 100,000 live births, meaning that America has the highest maternal mortality rate of all industrialized countries. Quartz reporter Annalisa Merelli, who has studied this problem, explains that it is due to a “complex brew of factors that, together, point to deep-rooted, systemic problems that run through the entire social and health care system of the country.”

But that’s not all. While OECD countries spend on average 2.43% of GDP on family benefits, the US spends less than 1.5%. The US also has a higher child poverty rate (defined as the ratio of 0-17 year olds whose income falls below the country’s poverty line) than nearly all other OECD countries.

It’s easy to say that the Trump administration’s immigration policies are “not the American way.” Looking at these statistics, however, it’s hard to believe that’s true.

This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The author’s views are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.