Children are not only our most precious possession but also our most fragile. This may not seem correct: we are reminded constantly of the indomitable human spirit, of children rising from great poverty and hardship to the greatest heights of success. Such examples warm our hearts and yet mislead our judgment. Countless children suffer lifetimes of difficulty as the result of early childhood poverty, and millions worldwide die each year because their families are too poor to keep them alive.
Here is a grim statistic: 5.4 million children under the age of five died in 2017, almost all of them in developing countries. Some 5.4 million children, yet without headlines, government inquiries, arrests of public officials, or any other kind of accountability. Indeed, they died with almost no public awareness at all. Hundreds of millions more children scraped by, surviving, but suffering from undernourishment, dangerous pollution, extreme stress, and with absentee parents who left the children behind as they searched for work in the cities or abroad.
The world is rich, yet countless millions of children are poor, including in Ireland and the United States, but especially in the poorest countries. In 2018, the world’s output reached $135 trillion measured at international prices, an average of about $17,500 per person on the planet. That’s enough to enable everybody on the planet to have a decent life, except for the fact that a few at the top end up with an unconscionable amount, and millions at the bottom end up with almost nothing. As Oxfam noted last month, just 26 individuals have a combined wealth of $1.5 trillion, equal to the wealth of the poorest 3.8 billion people on the planet.
Yet the system is rigged for the richest of the rich. My country, the US, and Ireland are part of the rigged system. Think of the free ride that the world’s largest company, Apple, received from both the US and Ireland. For many years, the company paid almost no taxes on its European profits, channelling the profits through an Irish subsidiary. The European Commission charged Ireland with violating state aid by giving Apple a sweetheart tax deal; the Irish Government is defending itself by arguing that the deal was open not just to Apple but to other companies as well. Either way, though, the outcome is the same: the world’s income is pouring into the accounts of the world’s richest companies and individuals, and out of reach of the world’s poorest children.
Here’s the hard truth of what we’ve learned about human resilience. Children are highly fragile to early deprivation and the related stress that accompanies poverty: violence, absentee parents, repeated bouts of illness, undernutrition, air and water pollution, and more. These early deprivations affect the development of the brain and body in ways that can be debilitating for an entire lifetime. The brain is in a critical stage of development in the first years, and the failures of early brain development due to poverty and stress may prove to be permanent.
The stress (cortisol) pathway is especially notable. When individuals are subjected to stress, the brain and body react by releasing cortisol into the bloodstream. When the stress is persistent, the high levels of cortisol adversely affect the developing brain, leading to damage to critical areas of the brain that involve memory, learning and future reactions to stress. The result is known as “toxic stress”.
On the positive side, psychologists, neuroscientists, social workers and educators have learned about the huge benefits of high-quality early childhood development (ECD), the idea that special attention to young children through loving care, good nutrition, low stress and early cognitive stimulation can lead to a lifetime of positive benefits. In the US schemes such Head Start have proven to benefit children not only through a boost of school readiness but also through a long-term strengthening of their “pro-sociality”, that is, the ability to live harmoniously and productively with others.
The Sustainable Development Goals are a global agenda to take care of our children and take care of the planet. Have a look at them. They call on us to end extreme poverty (goal 1), end hunger (goal 2), ensure health for all (goal 3), education for all, including ECD (goal 4), and equal treatment for girls and boys, women and men (goal 5). They point us to how we can pay for these outcomes, by reducing the great gulf of wealth and income between the rich and the poor (goal 10). And the goals keep our attention on a basic point: we must stop runaway climate change (goal 13), the destruction of the oceans (goal 14) and the land (goal 15), and protect our freshwater (goal 6), to avoid further desperation and poverty.
Ireland is a natural leader of the goals and the fight against child poverty. At a recent gathering in Dublin, Ireland’s remarkable Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone, mobilised caring groups and NGOs across Ireland to focus renewed attention on Ireland’s children in need and the world’s children in need. About 8.8 per cent of Ireland’s children live in consistent poverty, according to the official statistics.
The solutions involve a combination of actions: ECD for all children, social support for poor families and achieving the goals in all countries, rich and poor. The poorest nations need to be helped through increased official development assistance.
Most importantly, these proven methods require adequate public revenues to provide vital public services (health, education) and income transfers to the poor (both direct payments and as affordable housing, public transport and other services). The countries with the lowest poverty rates among the rich world are the social democracies of northern Europe, which collect government revenue of more than 45 per cent of national income in order to fund the social services. According to International Monetary Fund data, US revenues are currently about 31 per cent of GDP and Ireland’s are about 26 per cent of GDP.
The rich, in short, will have to pay more. Corporate taxes will need to be reformed collectively by the entire rich world, so that companies no long play off one country against another. With top wealth at unconscionable levels and our children’s needs more evident than ever, it’s time to forge a society that works for all, especially for all of our children.
Prof Jeffrey Sachs is the director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. He is a special adviser to the United Nations director general on the Sustainable Development Goals.