America’s children are not well – we need urgent action to save young lives
Concerns about the mental health and well-being of children are growing as the COVID-19 pandemic progresses. With vaccines for children under age 5 not yet available and with epidemics still disrupting schooling for children, teens and young college-aged adults, America’s younger generation remains heavily impacted.
And while the ever-evolving pandemic generates a daily rhythm of bad news, we must pay attention to the rhythms underlying its constant refrain. Because America’s children weren’t doing well even before the COVID-19 pandemic turned their lives upside down.
Americans under 25 face higher death rates and lower life expectancies than their peers in other wealthy countries. Our research report published earlier this month by the Population Reference Bureau, “Dying Young in the United States: What’s Driving High Death Rates Among Americans Under 25 and What Can Be Done?sounds the alarm about child and adolescent death rates in the United States — and we all need to heed it.
The numbers are staggering. In 2019 alone, nearly 60,000 people under the age of 25 died in the United States, including nearly 21,000 infants. Many of these youth deaths were preventable, with suicides, homicides and unintentional injuries being the leading causes of death among children and adolescents. Premature births are one of the main reasons why the infant mortality rate is up to three times higher in America than in other wealthy countries.
The risk of dying early in life is deeply linked to family socioeconomic status. Unfortunately, American children are far more likely to live in poverty than any other age group. Even after accounting for taxes and government benefits such as food assistance and housing vouchers, the child poverty rate in the United States is the second highest of 35 advanced economies, lower than that of the United States alone. Romania.
Racial disparities also play a role in early death. The risk of death before the age of 25 is 60% higher in black children and adolescents than in their white peers. Infants born to black women who have at least a bachelor’s degree face a higher infant mortality rate than infants born to white women without a bachelor’s degree, reflecting large differences in economic resources and exposure to related stress. to racism for black women.
The death of a child or adolescent is a tragedy for parents, families and society. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Many young lives could be saved through policies and interventions aimed at addressing social and economic inequality.
Child poverty levels in America put a significant portion of our children at high risk of death. Reducing child poverty through expanded tax credits—along with increased funding for child care, early education, housing, nutrition, and health care—would save many young lives.
The expanded child tax credit has eased the financial hardships of many people during the pandemic, reducing child poverty by 30 percent. This had the biggest impact on black and Latino children. By reducing child poverty, the tax credit has also likely saved young lives. Unfortunately, it returned to pre-pandemic levels in January 2022.
Addressing racial and ethnic barriers to improve access to quality health care and reproductive health programs would also reduce child and adolescent mortality rates. Improving the treatment and prevention of mental illness and addiction, as well as enacting general safety measures related to firearms and gun ownership, would also save lives.
Policy makers and community leaders need to take a hard look at what can be done to implement reforms that will save young lives. In our incredibly wealthy country, we must ensure that our children do not live in poverty, that their health care needs are met, and that they are safe from the dangers of gun violence. We owe at least that to our children and adolescents.
Robert A. Hummer is Howard W. Odum Professor of Sociology and Fellow of the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and former President of the Population Association of America. He was a principal investigator on a recent project that looked at deaths among Americans under age 25 before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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