In the aftermath of a tax deal that will accelerate the shift of wealth to the richest Americans, it’s worth calling attention to a new report about how far the U.S. is sinking below other major nations in how we take care of our children.
A UNICEF report released last week brings this alarming news into focus -- among the world’s 24 richest nations, the U.S. ranks a paltry 23rd in material well-being , 22nd in health well-being, and 19th in education well-being for our youth.
"Socio-economic status," the UNICEF report concludes, "is the indispensable framework for policy analysis of bottom end inequality for children."
Didn’t hear about these findings? Perhaps that’s because you live in the U.S.
The UNICEF study, released December 10, was widely reported in Canada, but a media search finds only two references in the U.S. media, in commentaries by Charles Blow in the New York Times and Erika Stutzman in the Boulder, Colo. Daily Camera.
"As our great divide between rich Americans and poor Americans continues to grow, children," Stutzman appropriately notes, "will continue to bear the brunt of our policy mistakes."
To which Blow adds, "As we begin inevitably wrangling over budget cuts and other austerity measures, we must not lose sight of the plight of the most vulnerable among us -- the ones who have little say and few choices: the nation's poorest children."
But maybe we have already lost sight.
As Sen. Bernie Sanders noted in his classic 8-hour filibuster on the floor of the Senate last week – ironically the same day the UNICEF study was released –the wealth of the top one percent of the richest Americans is equal to the wealth of the bottom 90 percent and they receive 24 percent of all income.
One result, we are failing the next generation and perhaps generations to come, especially relative to other industrialized countries that are among the global competitors to the U.S. in an increasingly international economy, as the UNICEF report makes clear crunching data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The U.S. lags behind countries like Iceland and its spectacular banking collapse, Ireland and its suddenly toothless Celtic Tiger, and Greece, that national symbol of economic dysfunction and chaos.
On material inequality, where the U.S. placed next to last, only ahead of Slovakia and behind Poland and Hungary, the analysis was premised on not just poverty, but also on household incomes, access to basic educational resources, and housing living space.
On education, where the U.S. ranked highest in the three groupings, at 19th, but still behind Greece, the principle criteria were reading, math, and science literacy.
On healthcare, where the U.S. trailed everyone but Italy and Hungary, the main categories of study were children’s self-reported health complaints such as head and stomach aches to sleep disorders, eating habits, and physical activity. But inequalities in health, the report emphasizes "arise because of inequalities in society in the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age."
While some of the data dates back as far as 2006, prior to the worst of the current recession, it’s likely conditions have become worse, in Europe as well as the U.S.
The report notes widespread debt problems, and, specifically, "in the United States, as many as half of all workers have taken a cut in pay or hours or suffered at least temporary unemployment" in the past two years.
What does this have to do with the Obama-Republican tax deal?
The tax deal diverts hundreds of billions of dollars to those who already have more yachts and second, third, and fourth homes than they need.
One of the agreement’s worst components, as Sanders noted, is the appeasement of the wealthy by slashing the estate tax, which as Sanders pointed out, applies to the top three-tenths of 1 percent of American families; 99.7 percent of American families will not pay one nickel in an estate tax."
Sanders cited the example of the Walton family, owners of Wal-Mart who have a net fortune of some $86 billion. The tax deal gives their heirs an estimated $32.7 billion tax break.
Rachel Maddow added two other examples to this list of infamy December 13, citing two families who have "spent millions lobbying to kill the estate tax."
The Mars candy billionaires, with a net worth of $30 billion, would get a $1.3 billion handout for their heirs. The Campbell Soup family, with a net worth of $6.8 billion, would save $1.3 billion in a tax giveaway.
Those resources, handed to the most wealthy, are diverted from education, healthcare, and other safety net programs that would reduce income inequality and help children, and give more ammunition to the deficit hawks who hold so much sway in Washington who will bemoan an ever greater deficit as a reason for additional programmatic cuts.
It’s hard to find a silver lining here. Except to continue to fight proposals like the latest giveaway that exacerbate the chasm between rich and poor in this country and threaten our next generation.
At a time in which the latest judicial ruling, overturning the flawed requirement that forces the uninsured to buy private insurance, we can also continue to work for the real reform that does not have the constitutional weakness of the Obama administration health plan.
A healthcare system such as Canada, and most of the other countries ahead of the U.S. in health inequality in the UNICEF report have, such as expanding Medicare to cover everyone, which would go a long way to reducing the gap between us and everyone else.