Children are not only our most precious possession but also our most fragile. This may not seem correct: we are reminded constantly of the indomitable human spirit, of children rising from great poverty and hardship to the greatest heights of success. Such examples warm our hearts and yet mislead our judgment. Countless children suffer lifetimes of difficulty as the result of early childhood poverty, and millions worldwide die each year because their families are too poor to keep them alive.
Here is a grim statistic: 5.4 million children under the age of five died in 2017, almost all of them in developing countries. Some 5.4 million children, yet without headlines, government inquiries, arrests of public officials, or any other kind of accountability. Indeed, they died with almost no public awareness at all. Hundreds of millions more children scraped by, surviving, but suffering from undernourishment, dangerous pollution, extreme stress, and with absentee parents who left the children behind as they searched for work in the cities or abroad.
The world is rich, yet countless millions of children are poor, including in Ireland and the United States, but especially in the poorest countries. In 2018, the world’s output reached $135 trillion measured at international prices, an average of about $17,500 per person on the planet. That’s enough to enable everybody on the planet to have a decent life, except for the fact that a few at the top end up with an unconscionable amount, and millions at the bottom end up with almost nothing. As Oxfam noted last month, just 26 individuals have a combined wealth of $1.5 trillion, equal to the wealth of the poorest 3.8 billion people on the planet.
Yet the system is rigged for the richest of the rich. My country, the US, and Ireland are part of the rigged system. Think of the free ride that the world’s largest company, Apple, received from both the US and Ireland. For many years, the company paid almost no taxes on its European profits, channelling the profits through an Irish subsidiary. The European Commission charged Ireland with violating state aid by giving Apple a sweetheart tax deal; the Irish Government is defending itself by arguing that the deal was open not just to Apple but to other companies as well. Either way, though, the outcome is the same: the world’s income is pouring into the accounts of the world’s richest companies and individuals, and out of reach of the world’s poorest children.
Here’s the hard truth of what we’ve learned about human resilience. Children are highly fragile to early deprivation and the related stress that accompanies poverty: violence, absentee parents, repeated bouts of illness, undernutrition, air and water pollution, and more. These early deprivations affect the development of the brain and body in ways that can be debilitating for an entire lifetime. The brain is in a critical stage of development in the first years, and the failures of early brain development due to poverty and stress may prove to be permanent.