Redistributing up

Pope Francis
Pope Francis

A NEW report from the United Nations Children’s Fund measures living conditions for children in wealthy nations of North America, Europe, and Asia. The United States gets a grade of D, particularly because of its contrast of wealth and poverty.

The UNICEF report is based on data amassed in 2009 and 2010. It ranks countries on children’s well-being, education, health and safety, behaviors and risks, and housing and environment. The United States has the largest gross domestic product in the world, yet one in seven of its children lives in poverty.

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Overall, the study ranks the United States 26th out of 29 nations in child well-being, behind the economic basket case of Greece and just above Lithuania, Latvia, and Romania. On education, our country comes in 27th.

The median annual household income in the United States is $50,500; it has dropped in each of the past three years. Official poverty would be half that for a family of four.

But most poor children are born into families that take in only two-thirds of that amount — $17,000 for four human beings to live in the United States.

The UNICEF report also rates the United States at or near the bottom in children’s cognitive development and school achievement. The United States, Great Britain, and Canada, three very rich nations, also have three of the worst infant-mortality rankings.

As Pope Francis remarked when he was an archbishop in Argentina, the West and the “developed world” seem to have their social priorities out of order. Then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio noted another study that showed the two largest percentages of GDP in the developed world went to cosmetics and pets. How is it civilized for a society to spend billions of dollars on cosmetics when it has not conquered child poverty or infant mortality?

The rich in the United States have been getting richer for decades. The poorest of the poor — the children of the poor — have been getting poorer. They are sicker, they are abused and abandoned more often, and their schooling is getting worse, the UNICEF study suggests.

As a matter of political economy, we are still a reverse-Robin Hood society: We are still redistributing income and wealth up. The government takes from the poor and gives to the rich.

And there is no attempt to deny or sugarcoat this, for it is a point of intellectual pride. The idea is that through the mechanism of the tax structure, the very rich will be given yet more money, ostensibly to invest. That will create jobs and income that “trickles down” from above. We have been hearing this for decades.

But most Americans can confirm by their own life experiences that it doesn’t work that way. Wealth tends to concentrate and to stay put, not to flow out or trickle down.

UNICEF has given us the latest evidence that this ideological fairy tale is false and that it hurts people — the most helpless among us the most. Pope Francis is right: Our values need a reset.