The general point is this: Governments have a unique role to play to ensure that all young members of a generation — poor children as well as rich ones — have a chance.
Poor kids are unlikely to break free of their parents’ poverty without strong and effective government programs that support high-quality education, health care and decent nutrition.
This is the genius of “social democracy,” the philosophy pioneered in Scandinavia, but also deployed in many developing countries, such as Costa Rica. The idea is simple and powerful: All people deserve a chance, and society needs to help everybody to secure that chance. Most important, families need help to raise healthy, well-nourished and educated children. Social investments are large, financed by high taxes, which rich people actually pay, rather than evade.
This is the basic method to break the inter-generational transmission of poverty. A poor child in Sweden has benefits from the start. The child’s parents have guaranteed maternity/paternity leave to help them nurture the infant. The government then provides high-quality day care, enabling the mother — knowing that the child is in a safe environment — to return to work. The government ensures that all children have a place in preschool, so that they are ready for formal schooling by the age of six. And health care is universal, so the child can grow up healthy.
A comparison of the US and Sweden is therefore revealing. Using comparable data and definitions provided by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the US has a poverty rate of 17.3 percent, roughly twice Sweden’s poverty rate of 8.4 percent. And the US’ incarceration rate is 10 times Sweden’s rate of 70 people per 100,000. The US is richer on average than Sweden, but the income gap between the US’ richest and poorest is vastly wider than it is in Sweden, and the US treats its poor punitively, rather than supportively.
One of the shocking realities in recent years is that the US now has almost the lowest degree of social mobility of the high-income countries. Children born poor are likely to remain poor; children born into affluence are likely to be affluent adults.
This inter-generational tracking amounts to a profound waste of human talents. The US will pay the price in the long term unless it changes course. Investing in its children and young people provides the very highest return that any society can earn, in both economic and human terms.
Jeffrey D. Sachs is professor of Economics and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also special adviser to the UN Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals.
Copyright: Project Syndicate