Countless Americans are expressing outrage at the separation of almost 2,000 children from their parents who illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in a recent six-week period. Leading Republicans have joined the chorus of Democrats who are denouncing this policy. Columnist Ross Douthat labeled the policy "the wickedest thing the Trump administration has done so far." Former first lady Laura Bush, writing in The Washington Post, compared the policy to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, calling it cruel, immoral, and heart-breaking. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine declared on CBS’s "Face the Nation" that the policy is "traumatizing to the children, who are innocent victims" and contrary to American values.
The American Psychological Association lambasted the policy as "needless and cruel" and a threat to "the mental and physical health of both the children and their caregivers." "The longer that children and parents are separated," the APA asserted, "the greater the reported symptoms of anxiety and depression for the children. Negative outcomes for children include psychological distress, academic difficulties and disruptions in their development."
The Trump administration has argued that it is simply enforcing the law. Trump tweeted that the Democrats’ "horrible and cruel legislative agenda" is to blame for separating children from their parents. White House chief of staff John Kelly insists that this policy will help deter families from trying to cross the border illegally and that the children will be placed in foster care. Congress will vote on two immigration bills this week that can clarify and hopefully rectify this situation.
While many Americans are outraged about this situation and sometimes about other events and government policies that harm children, we are doing little to remedy the larger problem of the millions of children in our country who are suffering because of inadequate parenting, nutrition, healthcare, and education.
One of out of five children in America lives below the poverty line. According to a recent UNICEF report, the child poverty rate in the U.S. is higher than 36 of the world’s 41 wealthiest countries.
Education is a key to success in life, but today almost 60 percent of all fourth and eighth grade public school students and more than 80 percent of African-American and nearly 75 percent of Latino children in those grades cannot read or compute at their grade level. This problem begins earlier. By age three, most children who grow up in poor families are substantially behind their middle- and upper-class peers in verbal and intellectual development, and the gap normally widens if they do not go to preschool. By age four, children in low-income families have typically heard 30 million fewer words than children in affluent families. Poor preschoolers are less likely than their wealthier peers to be able to identify letters, write their first names, or count to 20. By age five, a two-year achievement gap exists between many rich and poor children.
There are many things we can do through programs, churches, community organizations, and our individual actions to help our nation’s children. Consider a few examples. Former U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan contends that creating a national early education program focusing on birth to age five could "transform the life chances of children and strengthen families in important ways." Another remedy is to create more high-quality after-school programs to provide classes, tutoring, and help with homework to enable poor children to improve their school performance.
Reducing "summer slide" is also important. Because of their lack of books and intellectual enrichment at home, many low-income children regress during the summer. "Summer slide" typically accounts for two of the average three-year gap that exists between low- and high-income children by eighth grade. Creating summer camps to help improve children’s reading skills and prodding parents to teach their children during the summer is crucial.
Providing more role models, counselors, and big brothers and sisters for low-income children to help them deal with developmental, relational, and academic issues is also essential. Many businesses have created programs that enable current or retired employees to work in schools and mentor children. One organization that is doing excellent work is Communities in Schools. Founded in New York City in the 1970s, CIS currently works in 2,300 schools in 25 states and the District of Columbia. Through this organization, thousands of Americans tutor children in reading and math and help them prepare to take standardized tests at the end of the school year.
Congregations can partner with one of the nation’s 45,000 public schools that has a high percentage of low-income students to supply food, tutor students, collect books, and hold literacy classes for parents. Ensuring that teenagers graduate from high school is critical. School dropouts are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested than high school graduates and eight times more likely to be incarcerated.
We can also give more generously to help children. If all American Christians gave 10 percent of their post-tax income to churches and charities, sociologists Christian Smith and Michael Emerson argue in their book "Passing the Plate," they could accomplish "massive and unprecedented spiritual, social, cultural, and economic change." Sadly, however, surveys indicate that only 3 to 8 percent of Americans donate 10 percent or more of their income.
Hopefully, the separation of children from parents who have entered our country illegally will soon end. The bigger issue, however, is: Will we take action through government, houses of worship, and humanitarian organizations to end the larger tragedy of the millions of American children whose intellectual, physical, and emotional development is stunted, whose education is of poor quality and ends too early, and whose potential is not fully realized.
—Dr. Gary Scott Smith is the retired chair of the history department at Grove City College and is a fellow for faith and politics with The Center for Vision & Values. He is the author of "Suffer the Children" (2017), "Religion in the Oval Office" (Oxford University Press, 2015), "Faith and the Presidency From George Washington to George W. Bush" (Oxford University Press, 2009), "Religion in the Oval Office" and "Heaven in the American Imagination" (Oxford University Press, 2011).