As political maxims go, it seems beyond reproach: Don’t go after kids. Yet, once again, the Trump administration is proving quite the innovator when it comes to breaking political norms. In five distinct policy areas, the administration has doubled down on policies that impose disproportionate, sometimes fatal, burdens on children—especially black and brown ones.
To be sure, Trump does not justify these policies by their anti-kid effects. Children’s suffering is either predictable collateral damage or a bargaining chip in a larger cultural and political conflict. But this just makes the administration’s multifront war on kids more baffling. It courts controversy and undermines the White House’s own rhetoric of righteous victimhood. So this question is worth asking: Why choose policies that so visibly harm children?
Let’s start with the most obvious and well-publicized front of the war on kids: the separation and detention of families at the US-Mexico border. Since 2001, the government has had family-detention centers for those seized at the southern border. But since October 2017, about 2,000 children have been separated from migrant parents, as a result of the administration’s decision to criminally prosecute almost all adult migrants. That zero-tolerance posture assures separation, because children cannot be held alongside parents or guardians in federal jail.
Rather than mitigating the resulting harms to children, the administration first sought to exploit them. The White House tendered separated families as a “bargaining chip” in congressional negotiations over the Dreamers. Separately, immigration officials described the practice of taking children away from parents as a “deterrent” to others thinking of claiming asylum at the southern border.
A second, underappreciated example of Trump’s cruelty toward children is the travel ban. Despite the White House’s claims about security concerns, in practice the ban disproportionately affects children, as well as women and the elderly.
Understanding why requires a bit of knowledge about US visas. Before the ban, a traveler from Syria, Libya, Iran, or another affected country had to obtain a visa from a US consulate. But to do so, he or she had to prove “to the satisfaction of the Attorney General” their eligibility. Meeting this burden of proof was always easier for children than for adults. Adults, for example, might have criminal records or connections to proscribed groups. In contrast, children almost never do. So they had less to prove. Before the travel ban, therefore, kids could more easily obtain visas than adults, especially adult men. And when the travel ban came into effect, it was kids rather than adults who were disproportionately barred—sometimes with tragic consequences.
A third anti-kid policy affects Americans directly: The Trump White House has urged the imposition of work requirements for a host of federal welfare and health benefits. This month, building on an April 2018 executive order, the president’s Council on Economic Affairs declared the war on poverty “over,” and said that victory was justification for extending work requirements to non-cash programs like SNAP and housing assistance.
Work requirements mean that working parents who lose their job could also lose their health care, housing, and food benefits. When parents lose access to such help, it is their children who immediately suffer. When Maine in 2012 halved the eligibility threshold for Medicaid, for example, a substantial slice of children among affected families lost access to care.
In states with work requirements that do exempt working parents, the definitions of what counts as a parent are extremely narrow. Indiana excludes only families with children younger than 6 years old, while Michigan is considering lowering the cutoff to children aged 3 months.
Moreover, even if work requirements have exceptions for some families, they make no provision for the network of grandparents, uncles, aunts, and close relations that provide critical childcare to parents in low-wage, long-hour jobs. Again, the spillover results of work requirements damage the institutions that care for children.
The fourth attack is less on kids in general than on minority children in particular. Just in time for Independence Day, the Trump administration rescinded policy guidance that encouraged educational institutions to account for the historic exclusion of blacks and Latinos from learning opportunities. The Department of Education is also rolling back efforts to rein in the disproportionate, and often unjustified, disciplining of black students. The predictable effect of these policies will be to narrow the supply of talented minority students raised from poverty, while expanding the school-to-prison pipeline for those same kids.
The fifth and final assault on kids isn’t so indirect. In recent deliberations by the World Health Organization, the US delegation sought to dilute a resolution favoring breastfeeding over the use of formula—going so far as to allegedly threaten to curtail military aid to the resolution’s sponsor, Ecuador. Bizarrely, Trump defended this policy in terms of women’s “choice”—a principle that has gotten rather less solicitude where women’s reproductive choices are at stake.
At present, information of the ample evidence of breastfeeding’s positive effects on maternal and infant health, with attendant drops in infant mortality, can be found on the federal National Institutes of Health site. (It is perhaps only a question of time before this goes the way of the Environmental Protection Agency’s scientific expertise.)
At first blush, all this seems puzzlingly counterproductive, even for the Trump administration. After all, why take the political heat of attacking kids? To be sure, a war on children is not without precedent. In the 1990s, social scientist John Dilulio introduced the idea of “inner-city” kids who would become “super-predators” because of their “deviant” family surroundings. This obviously racially charged myth provided new fuel for bipartisan fearmongering about criminality just as actual crime rates were cratering.
Forty years before the super-predator panic, it was Japanese children who impelled fear. Writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone upheld the first step of the Japanese internment by pointing to the failure of Japanese Americans, and in particular their kids, to assimilate “as an integral part of the white population.” Stone warned on language schools that were “sources of Japanese nationalistic propaganda,” and pointed fearfully to “10,000…American-born children of Japanese parents…sent to Japan for all of a part of their education.”
Children have been demonized before. But that doesn’t quite capture what the White House is doing. Although the rhetoric of the war on kids bristles with stigmatizing and hateful language, the concentrated harm to children is a side effect. It’s just the cost of doing business for this administration.
What’s new, rather, is the malign neglect, bordering on contempt, of children, and the willingness to make them suffer for short-term political gains. The crude, cruel treatment of children as “bargaining chips” in immigration debates is no outlier. It represents a profound and important element of this administration’s approach to the world, one in which even kids are disposable.
To understand that approach, and to see why it makes sense as a matter of electoral politics, it helps to see that the victims of all of these policies are disproportionately or exclusively racial and ethnic minorities. This is true categorically for family separation, the travel ban, and the affirmative-action rollback—and overwhelmingly the case for work requirements and the anti-breastfeeding campaign.
According to acute observers like Arlie Russell Hochschild, one of the most important sources of discontent among populations that voted for Trump is a fear they and theirs are losing out, especially to immigrants and racial minorities. In Hochschild’s analysis, these voters perceive immigrants and minorities as cutting ahead of them “in line” for admission to the American dream.
Consistent with Hochschild’s data is statistical work by Diana Mutz suggesting that “status threat,” rather than economic motives, can best “explain” the 2016 presidential vote. (Although Mutz’s interpretation has been challenged, it has not been refuted and remains a very plausible read of the available data about American populism today.)
The Hochschild/Mutz understanding of Trump’s appeal makes the attacks on children readily comprehensible: If you are concerned about your status, if you are worried your progeny will not enjoy as high a status as you, it makes sense that you’ll be indifferent to the war on kids. Its component policies are all supposed to promote the interests of you and yours. The collateral costs to others’ kids may not be what you specifically wanted—but that anguish is evidence that at least status is being reshuffled. The trauma of black and brown children may just be the price to pay for leveling the playing field back to “normal.”
Not all of these policies have prevailed, and even some of the president’s ardent supporters have demurred ever so slightly to family separation. But there is no reason to think that the arc of moral injustice apparent in these policies will break any time soon. Given sufficient indifference from the public, the war on minority kids will be here to stay.