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August 30, 2015

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Our children, sad future

Now that high school graduation season is winding down, it’s worth taking a moment to remember that in the sea of flowing gowns lurk some unsettling statistical realities. On many measures of childhood well-being, the last decade in the United States has been one of stagnation. We remain an outlier in many ways among developed countries.

This doesn’t mean that the United States hasn’t made progress in recent memory. It has. It’s just that much of that progress came in the 1990s. Since then, our progress has slowed or stalled.

This week, the research group Child Trends released a statistical portrait of the high school class of 2013, compiled by a senior researcher, David Murphey. The numbers were depressing.

The report imagines a hypothetical class of 100 graduates. Of those, it estimates that:

• 71 have experienced physical assault, 28 have been victimized sexually (10 report that they have been the victims of dating violence in the past year, and 10 report they have been raped), 32 have experienced some form of child maltreatment, 27 were in a physical fight and 16 carried a weapon in the past year.

• 64 have had sexual intercourse, 48 are sexually active, 27 used a condom and 12 were on birth control pills the last time they had sex; 21 percent had a sexually transmitted infection in the past year; three or four of the young women have been or are pregnant, and one has had an abortion.

• 39 have been bullied, physically or emotionally — 16 in the past year; 29 felt “sad and hopeless” continually for at least two weeks during the past year; 14 thought seriously about attempting suicide, and six went through with the attempt.

• 34 are overweight, and 22 are living in poverty (10 in deep poverty).

Those statistics are shameful.

We have not sufficiently prioritized some fundamental safety structures for children in this country — fighting child poverty; supporting all families (including single-parent ones) and their children through policies such as paid family leave and early childhood education; insulating children from a culture soaked with violence; and educating children fully about sexuality and pregnancy, and allowing them open access to a full range of safe sex options (which would reduce our extraordinary rate of sexually transmitted disease, prevent more unintended pregnancies and reduce the number of abortions).

Our problems would be fixable if only we could agree that the protection and healthy development of this country’s children is not only a humanitarian and moral imperative, but also an economic and cultural one: Today’s students are tomorrow’s workers.

However, many conservatives seem too selfish to take the altruistic view and too blind to take the self-interested one.

For instance, we are among only three countries that have not ratified the United Nations’ 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, which UNICEF calls “the first legally binding international instrument to incorporate the full range of human rights — civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights.” The other two countries are South Sudan, which just became a country in 2011, and Somalia.

During a 2008 youth debate between the presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain were asked whether they would seek to ratify the treaty. Obama responded:

“It’s important that the United States return to its position as a respected global leader and promoter of human rights. It’s embarrassing to find ourselves in the company of Somalia, a lawless land. I will review this and other treaties, and ensure the United States resumes its global leadership in human rights.”

Embarrassing is an understatement, but efforts to have the United States ratify the treaty have been met with opposition from Republicans because, as Mother Jones reported in 2010, “Under the treaty, ‘parents would no longer be able to administer reasonable spankings to their children,’ the government couldn’t sentence teenagers to life in prison, kids could get sex-ed and birth control if they wanted it, and — gasp! — children would be able to choose their own religion, according to a fact sheet published by ParentalRights.org.”

That year, ParentalRights.org reported that 31 senators were co-sponsoring legislation to prevent the United States from ratifying the treaty; two other senators signed a letter opposing ratification. All of them were Republicans. Only eight Republican senators did not sign on to this tomfoolery; five of them are now gone from the Senate.

When you prefer the company of Somalia on issues of children’s rights and well-being, you know what your priorities are.

Charles M. Blow writes for The New York Times.

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