War on Children at Home and Abroad: From US Labor Policy to Illegal Detention and Opposition to Breastfeeding

 Immigrant children

Introduction: Child Exploitation under Neoliberalism

Most people would agree that the manner a society treats children is a reflection of its values and moral standards. This was as true of the Golden Age of 5th century Athens as it is of 21st century America. In ancient Athens, boys of citizens received preferential treatment over girls, and boys of affluent families enjoyed all the privileges of the city-state while the children of workers and small farmers were marginalized. Children of Metics (non-Athenians) were treated based on their non-citizen status, deprived of privileges accorded to citizens. Children of slaves were at the bottom of the pyramid, destined to follow in their parents footsteps of servitude. Such was the Golden Age of Athenian democracy.

Like fifth century Athens, class society today treats its children according to their status, with variations for children enjoying far more privileges in the wealthier and more benevolent capitalist countries such as the Scandinavian, while much less so in developing nations with huge wealth gaps and widespread poverty. American society treats its children according to the social class in which they belong. However, because of the history of apartheid policies with roots in the institution of slavery and Jim Crow laws, there is a deep-seated element of institutional and cultural racism. It is hardly surprising that the institutional structure works very well for the wealthy children of the white Judeo-Christian majority. As we descend the social, racial, ethnic and religious ladder, violations of human rights of children are very evident in every domain from public schools and housing, to medical care and the criminal justice system.

Considering how American society has treated its own children historically based on social class, gender, race, ethnicity and religion, it is hardly surprising that in 2018 it decided to incarcerate and violate the human rights of children coming across the border illegally, while denying them due process. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the agency that the US State Department had asked to falsify the numbers on poverty in the US in 2017, issued a report in June 2018 accusing the US of violating the human rights of children. “And although it [USA] is the only UN Member State not to have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it had signed the international accord and ratified others, which meant that it had legal obligations to children in its care.” https://news.un.org/en/story/2018/06/1011391

The US responded by withdrawing from the UN Human Rights agency on the pretext that the UN Human Rights Council was critical of the apartheid state of Israel and its chronic and blatant violations of Palestinian human rights. The fact the US used Israel as the pretext, a country that almost every nation on earth has condemned for pursuing apartheid policies, speaks volumes about American values rooted in violence and racism, not only against civilians, but even against children. The gross violation of human rights of children by the US is symptomatic of a social order maintained to support the neoliberal order on a world scale. Shaping the value system of society that places wealth accumulation above the lives of human beings, neoliberalism has reverberations for the human rights of children from their native lands where their families are so exploited that life is intolerable to the countries that they wish to escape. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/us-expected-to-back-away-from-un-human-rights-council/2018/06/19/a49c2d0c-733c-11e8-b4b7-308400242c2e_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.97990e71b82a

There are many dimensions to US policy toward children holding legal residence status, illegal migrants, and children working for multinational corporations around the world earning subsistence wages under unsafe conditions. The ideological and political dimensions with racist undertones are linked to the political economy that such policies are intended to benefit. It is hardly a secret that under the neoliberal state, corporations have gained such preponderate role in society that policy is driven for the sake of optimizing profit, regardless of how damaging to the working class and middle class throughout the world, especially to the poor in the Southern Hemisphere. Neoliberalism’s goal is to privatize everything in the public sector so that the private sector remains strong. Regardless of the costs to people’s basic needs, from clean water to sufficient food and medical care, the neoliberal system is narrowly focused on the goal of capital accumulation even if that means the exploitation of child labor and transferring income from social welfare to corporate welfare. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0164070407000559; https://www.hoover.org/research/welfare-well-how-business-subsidies-fleece-taxpayers

Mass transference of social welfare programs, and downward wage pressure with higher indirect income taxes impacts the working class children and women. Naturally, one would assume that there are limits to sacrificing the welfare of children for the sake of maximizing short-term profits. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) there are roughly 250 million children working around the world under the age of 17, with about 180 million engaged in hazardous labor conditions. Although the ILO has pledged to eradicate child labor by 2025, just like the UN pledges to eradicate poverty every ten years, the US has taken steps to loosen the law on labor laws applied to children in hazardous environments.  https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/12265080408449859?journalCode=rger20

Whether in promoting child labor policy that places the health safety of children at risk, illegal detention of migrants from Central America and Mexico, or supporting large multinationals in the business of baby formula, the US has decidedly made its case against children and in favor of corporate profits. These issues are inexorably linked and a reflection of how neoliberal policies of the authoritarian variety that Trump Republicans are pursuing. While the media narrowly focuses on each one of these separately and never connects them to the political economy, treating them as the though they are unrelated to broader policies and the institutional structure, in reality they are intertwined with the neoliberal status quo.

While the neoliberal defenders of such policies would argue that these specific policies are solely  reflection of the Trump administration’s callousness toward children, the reality is that ever since Reagan the US has eroded labor laws, including those pertaining to children; it has gone after illegal Latin American immigrants; and the multinationals producing baby formula have been spreading blatant lies about formula vs. breast milk long before Trump came to Washington. This is not to say that a less authoritarian regime than that of Trump would not have been more humane with regard to child labor laws, illegal detentions of migrant children, and breastfeeding vs infant formula. However, the driving force behind policy, which includes policy toward children, is driven by a neoliberal ideology, whether it is of the pluralist variety as in Western Europe, Canada and Australia, or the authoritarian American variety growing by leaps and bounds.

In 2017, the Trump administration, with the backing of the Republican-controlled congress, proposed cutting school lunch programs that impact the poor throughout the country. Hardly surprising, the Republicans gave trillions of dollars in tax breaks to the richest Americans, insisting it was all for the sake of creating jobs! Making matters worse, the administration relaxed the lunch nutrition program for children, permitting much higher sugary treats. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue insisted that healthier meals only result in “picky eaters [who] refuse more of the food offered at school.” The Trump administration has been building on the foundations of neoliberalism that are bipartisan and remain so to this day, despite nuances in the increasingly weaker social safety net. Although the US is at the center of this controversy because the Trump administration has stripped the mask of authoritarianism behind the neoliberal regime, this is not a unique situation in the US, but one that plagues many countries around the world, as Martha Knox Haly argues in “Neoliberalism and Child Protection: A Deadly Mix”. For the sake of strengthening the pro-business institutional structure, governments from the US to Australia, from Canada to India are not far behind the authoritarian US government that they criticize, though they do draw the line on breastfeeding and separating children from their parents seeking asylum, whereas the US does not. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259736394_Neoliberalism_and_Child_Protection_A_Deadly_Mix; http://beta.bodhicommons.org/article/labour-laws-and-the-neoliberal-state-in-india

Behind the thin veneer of American pluralism the ugly reality of a neoliberal totalitarian state has surfaced and it is spreading globally. This has exposed not just racism, sexism, xenophobia and militarist-police-state methods intended to enforce conformity at home and among US allies and foes alike, but a system that must become even more dictatorial and harsher toward society’s marginalized population so that people do not rise up to overthrow something that serves only a small minority of the population.

To justify inhumane policies toward children, apologists point to: a) illegal immigrants, including children used as a pretext pose a threat to national security; b) other countries forcibly reject illegal immigrants that include children; c) sub-Sahara African rebel movements use children as leverage; d) in comparison to the US, child abuses are worse in parts of Eurasia, Africa, the Middle East and southern Asia. While all of this is true, the countries where child abuses take place do not invoke “Exceptionalism” like the US, nor do they lecture the world about democracy, freedom, and human rights while violating international conventions of the UN.

Child Labor Policy

The labor policy of the Trump administration is indicative of the contempt toward the children of the working poor, a policy that the Republican establishment and Wall Street wholeheartedly embrace because it is in accordance with the neoliberal goals of maximizing profits. Although historically US labor unions have sided with the Democratic Party, anti-union policies have been bi-partisan from the early Cold War to the present. With the advent of neoliberalism under Reagan, anti-union and anti-labor policies became institutionalized and synonymous with patriotism, backed by the court system from Courts of Appeal to the Supreme Court. Child labor policy is merely an extension of the broader anti-union and anti-labor policy that the US has pursued very aggressively in the last four decades. (David Jacobs et al, “Union Strength, Neoliberalism, and Inequality” in http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0003122414536392; also see, https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2017/3/1/1639023/-Whatever-Happened-to-Unions-Neoliberalism

According to the US Fair Labor Standards Act, children under 18 years old cannot work in hazardous occupations. Under Trump, the anti-working class Department of Labor relaxed protections for young workers engaged in hazardous jobs – meat processing, heavy machine operators, timber industry, forest fighting, among others. The neoliberal corporate welfare policy of “earn-as-you-learn” apprentice program has been introduced with a $200 million of government subsidies to corporations to strengthen the apprenticeship programs in hazardous occupations. President Obama started this corporate welfare program with $90 million, but Trump expanded it and relaxed labor safety laws. The neoliberal policy under both Democrats and Republicans is more or less the same, in so far as the state provides corporate subsidies $1.47 of government funding for every $1 spent by the corporation on apprentice.  The only difference is rolling back protections for those under 18 years of age.

Children of the poor under 18 had always worked, especially in farming, although factory and mining work entailed long hours under less than safe and healthy conditions in comparison to farm work. Historically, teachers, clergy, labor leaders and social activists spoke out against child labor, a trend that became popular during the era of Progressivism in American history (1890-1920). In the current political culture of identity politics that both the Democrat and Republican parties pursue to forge popular consensus, child labor issues are used for or against the political opponent who is really the other side of the same neoliberal coin. Meanwhile, the problem is never placed in the larger institutional context with neoliberal capitalism at the core driving policy.  https://news.bloomberglaw.com/daily-labor-report/trump-administration-wants-to-train-teens-in-hazardous-jobs

The first to pass laws regulating child labor from 1802 to 1878, England promulgating these laws afforded some measure of protection for children during the Second Industrial Revolution. In the United States it took much longer to outlaw child labor, which the neoliberals are bringing back today. Although Congress passed rather weak laws in 1918 and 1922 to protect children, the anti-labor Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional, just like today’s Supreme Court that is as anti-labor as in the 1920s on the eve of the Great Depression. It was not until 1938 that Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which stipulated hazardous work cannot be carried out by anyone under 18; a law Trump’s Department of Labor targeted to water down because progress under the neoliberal model means returning to the 19th century of pre-trade union era when employers determined labor policy.

Because of the rising cost of living for working class and many who consider themselves middle class, children under 18 have no choice but to work; some just to have spending money because their parents are too poor, others to save for a college education. The media rarely if ever covers the class nature of labor policy, refusing to link it to the political economy of neoliberalism. Instead, the Republicans use the issue to point to immigrants for “stealing jobs and draining the welfare system”. Democrats use the same issue to mobilize “identity politics” groups – minorities, women, teachers, etc. without addressing the class-based nature of the problem. In short, the vast majority of the people have one-dimensional view of child labor, failing to see the connections with the neoliberal political economy resting on corporate welfare. The focus of the media, politicians, and analysts is invariably on resolving the specific issue in isolation of all others within the system that created the problem in the first place.

Imprisoning Migrant Children

Not just in the US, but throughout the Western World there is a trend toward nativism linked to rightwing populist politics but also in reaction to the downward wage pressure globalization has placed on the working class. As a country of northwest European immigrants who ran over the natives from the colonial era to the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the Westward Expansion that coincided with railroad building and industrialization in the second half of the 19th century, the US was built on internal colonization. New immigrants filled the labor demand of an expanding economy.

Considering the Anglo-Saxon roots of the Founding Fathers and slavery as an integral institution of an apartheid society, US immigrant policy and institutional treatment of immigrants was always hierarchical. The mainstream culture always treated Eastern and Southern European immigrants, along with Irish Catholics, as second class citizens in a nation where it was assumed that only a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male could become president. Although Catholics from Ireland and Italy made progress in state and local politics by the end of the 19th century, the country remained heavily segregated by race and ethnicity, and it was not until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, driven by both domestic and global Col War politics that an effort was made toward lessening social marginalization based on race, gender, ethnicity and religion, but not class. This resulted in the co-optation of the wealthier among the minorities into the social mainstream.

Spanish-speaking Americans were here when the US defeated Mexico in a war and signed the Treaty of Guadalupe (1848) that resulted in the acquisition of California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and parts of Colorado and New Mexico. Because of the apartheid nature of American society and the built-in white nativist cultural prejudices, brown-skinned Catholic immigrants south of the Rio Grande were relegated to the bottom of the social pyramid along with African-Americans already segregated. Historical context about the social class and ethnicity of immigrants south of the Rio Grande is key to understanding the deep-rooted cultural and institutional prejudices now manifesting themselves in the controversy of immigrant children placed in ‘for-profit detention centers’, not so dissimilar to ‘for-profit-prisons’. Because of a long-standing pattern of US support for military dictatorships in Central America from 1912 when the marines were sent to Nicaragua until 2009 when the CIA helped Honduran military coup against the duly-elected president Manuel Zelaya, it is understandable that people suffering under such governments try to flee. Repressive US-backed regimes that have killed thousands of people and cause widespread misery result in families efforts to travel north to America.  (For an overview, see David FitzGerald, Culling the Masses: The Democratic Origins of Racist Immigration Policy in the Americas, 2014; https://www.thenation.com/article/real-border-security-comes-moral-foreign-policy/)

Besides the very blatant US intervention in Central America on behalf of dictatorships and the racism deeply imbedded in US immigration policy, one that even Trump candidly admitted that he prefers highly educated Norwegians rather than unskilled laborers, at the core of the many dimensions of this policy rests a political economy that rests on paying subsistence wages to illegal and often legal Latin immigrants. It is hardly surprising of course that the US prefers the ‘brain drain’ to continue from the rest of the world, especially now that Asia has become a global economic center and it is competing with the US in the lucrative high tech industries.

US multinational corporations with a long-standing presence in Central America, are partially at the root of the mass migration, along with US government support for corrupt authoritarian regimes accountable to the local elites and foreign companies. Globalization has worked wonders for Guatemala’s small comprador bourgeoisie, but not for the workers and campesinos. According to the US Department of State: More than 200 U.S. and hundreds of other foreign firms have active investments in Guatemala. Under CAFTA-DR, all forms of investment are protected, including enterprises, debt, concessions, contracts, and intellectual property. U.S. investors enjoy, in almost all circumstances, the right to establish, acquire, and operate investments in Guatemala on an equal footing with local investors.” https://www.state.gov/e/eb/rls/othr/ics/2015/241580.htm

Symptomatic of the dysfunctional society that operates like a cheap labor camp for domestic and foreign enterprises, illegal immigration to the US through Mexico is hardly something that started under Trump. During the Obama administration, illegal immigrants, including children, were detained and abused in various forms (see ACLU reports). To outdo the Obama administration and illustrate that the US is not an open society when it comes to brown-skinned Catholics from Central America and Mexico, the Trump administration forcibly separated children from their parents, intending to send a signal to all thinking of travelling north. That these people are poor and desperate, seeking asylum meant nothing to an administration that stripped the mask of pretense about human rights and democracy, exposing to the entire world the true nature of the regime that even mainstream analysts now openly call authoritarian.   

Making matters worse, the Trump administration sought to place the entire children’s migrant issue into the neoliberal mold by dishing out multi-million dollar contracts to those companies that had contributed generously to the Republican Party campaign. In fairness, the privatization of the US prison system took off during the Reagan administration. Private prisons found support even among Democrats like Hillary Clinton who had received campaign donations in return for her enthusiastic endorsement, despite lofty rhetoric regarding the injustice of the racist criminal justice system. Following along the lines of the framework of previous administrations, Trump and his team of nativist militants had no qualms about violating a UN covenant that obligated the US to respect human rights of migrant children seeking asylum. As a recent critical article in Slate.com noted, the policy is rooted in American history, but plays very well among the popular base of the Republican Party. At the heart of the nativist idea is a fear of foreign influence, that some force originating abroad threatens to undermine the bonds that hold America together. What critics condemned as “Know Nothing-ism” in the 19th century, adherents called Americanism.” https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/02/the-nativist-blueprint-for-trumps-immigration-plan.html

If the enemy is the unskilled brown-skinned Central American worker, and the solution is the Norwegian Ph.D. who is just as anti-American if not more than the Guatemalan campesino trying to enter the US; and if the state is engaging in racist social engineering to achieve its goal, where is the vehement opposition from the business elites that pay lip service to multiculturism because they want all people to be customers? How can the wealthy elites and corporate America that received trillions in tax cuts and continue to receive massive corporate subsidies from local, state and federal government object to a US policy that violates the human rights of Guatemalan children of the poor? If “white supremacy” is packaged within the neoliberal model and the companies making money from detention centers where illegal immigrant adults and children are kept, then how is this different than the “for-profit prisons” that even many Democrats have supported?  https://www.alternet.org/some-trumps-biggest-donors-are-profiting-big-time-immigration-detention-centers

According to the Washington Post, “The two largest private prison contractors in the United States, GEO Group and CoreCivic, house thousands of immigrant detainees across the country. These corporations now face allegations that they force immigrant detainees to perform unpaid labor inside their facilities.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/who-has-most-to-gain-from-trumps-immigration-policies-private-prisons/2018/06/29/4ae9c6a8-7a4d-11e8-aeee-4d04c8ac6158_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.3f7142ea8717. Even worse, the Daily Beast has uncovered that the “administration has been paying an intelligence contractor millions of dollars to fly immigrant children to shelters across the United States. MVM, Inc. has a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to provide “unaccompanied alien children (UAC) transportation services” worth $162 million. MVM is one of a number of defense contractors cashing in on the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy of locking up immigrant families.” https://www.thedailybeast.com/intelligence-contractor-makes-millions-flying-immigrant-kids-to-shelters

It should not come as a surprise that neoliberalism is behind the historic nativist ideology propagating white supremacy by using immigration policy, a broader Western World trend among rightwing populists as well as traditional conservatives. Naturally, the policy excites the Republican popular base that wants an enemy to blame for all the problems befalling them. Needless to say, they never stop to think that if no one ever entered the US legally or illegally, their problems would actually become worse not better. At the same time, illegal immigration provides a pretext for Trump Republicans to raise campaign contributions from numerous rightwing billionaires and millionaires refusing to accept the reality that the white majority will become the minority by the middle of the century.

It is encouraging that millions of people have demonstrated fundamental human decency and compassion for children separated from their parents in such a violent manner. Many among the general population, but also among the business and political elites, realize that the world sees the US as a harsh authoritarian society failing to respect human rights, even for children as young as a few months old, all in the name of national security. When Donald Turk, president of the European Council, warns: “Dear America, appreciate your allies, after all, you don’t have that many,” it is a signal not only about US leanings toward isolationism, but about the wider gap in paying lip service to the common European-American ideals of the Enlightenment rooted in the open society principles. It is embarrassing for the entire Western World to be associated with the US , a nation that seems much closer ideologically and politically to interwar totalitarian regimes than Merkel’s Germany. If the optics of US “zero tolerance” policy are bad, according to Trump and his supporters, then the issue is indeed that the mask of authoritarianism has come off too suddenly and harshly for a nation claiming to be democratic. The pluralist neoliberal Democrats are there to put the mask back on. This assumes that they are able to convince enough people to oppose unmasked authoritarianism which is where neoliberalism has led America’s political parties.

Multinationals Manufacturing Baby Formula Against Breastfeeding

The apotheosis of neoliberal policy by the populist rightwing neoliberal Americans is best illustrated by the Trump administration’s support for corporate infant formula vs. breastfeeding, a position that risks the health of billions of babies around the world so that corporate profits can remain healthy. The controversy erupted at the World Health Organization (WHO) 71st Assembly that gathered to present scientific evidence about the health benefits of breastfeeding vs. manufactured formula. On 8 July 2018, the US delegation proposed “removing language that called on governments to “protect, promote and support breast-feeding” and another passage that called on policymakers to restrict the promotion of food products that many experts say can have deleterious effects on young children.” https://www.snopes.com/news/2018/07/09/importance-of-breastfeeding-resolution/

The controversy is mostly aimed at multinational corporations pushing formula mix substitutes, but especially the Nestle, Abbott, Meade Johnson, Kraft-Heinz, and Wyeth among other smaller firms. According to published reports, these companies falsely claimed that manufactured formula is equal to if not superior to breastfeeding. “The $70 billion industry, which is dominated by a handful of American and European companies, has seen sales flatten in wealthy countries in recent years, as more women embrace breastfeeding. Over all, global sales are expected to rise by 4 percent in 2018, according to Euromonitor, with most of that growth occurring in developing nations.” https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2018/07/this-economist-explains-the-inexplicable-hostility-of-the-trump-administration-to-breastfeeding/

Besides the decades of scientific data proving such claims were patently false, there is the larger issue of economics for billions of people around the world. Objecting to the World Health Organization’s resolution that governments need to promote breastfeeding for the health of their population, the US sought to protect corporate infant formula companies, using legal and illegal methods to target the world’s poorest populations. From the Philippines to Ecuador and sub-Sahara Africa, infant formula companies have been lobbying against breastfeeding. But it was not Ecuador or the Philippines that caved to corporate pressures, but the US. Threatening nations with punitive trade measures and withdrawal of military aid, the US tried to at least water down the World Health Organization resolution until Russia stepped in to support it.  Using its considerable leverage in both trade and military aid to promote corporate interests, the US Department of Health and Human Services justified its anti-breastfeeding-pro-corporate position on the basis that it merely wanted to provide mothers around the world with alternative choices to breastfeeding. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2018/07/09/u-s-effort-to-weaken-an-international-breast-feeding-resolution-has-a-long-history/?utm_term=.77c176b5ba6b


Neoliberal policy toward children is symptomatic of a broader policy toward humanity whose role is to maximize corporate profits at any cost to humanity. There is broad consensus among many academics, even those in mainstream institutions like the International Monetary Fund that promote neoliberal policies around the world, that neoliberalism exacerbates inequality on a world scale. Despite the fragmentary approach of analyzing issues such as policy toward children, instead of placing it into the institutional neoliberal framework, many scholars recognize the inexorable links between declining social welfare and rising corporate welfare; declining incomes for workers and the middle class against the background of rising wealth of the tiny percent at the very top of the income pyramid; declining public confidence in bourgeois institutions and the rise of rightwing populism as a last desperate attempt to impose neoliberal policies.

Undergoing a crisis, the neoliberal model under the authoritarian administration of Republican President Trump has sent shock waves across the world in so far as it legitimizes everything from imprisoning immigrant children seeking asylum, to decriminalizing hazardous labor for minors, and promoting formula milk as a means of keeping a handful of multinational corporations profitable, no matter the health consequences for billions of people. For neoliberal pluralists from French President Emanuel Macron to Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that oppose Trump’s rightwing populist brand of neoliberalism, the nightmare is that they lack the kind of global power leverage the US enjoys; this despite widespread anti-Americanism even among America’s closest allies. Neoliberalism’s future rests with even more authoritarianism. At its core, neoliberalism seeks to mold human lives to maximize profit. Therefore, the totalitarian element in the system is contrary to the rhetorical claim of democracy and open society. US policy toward its own children, children of its poor southern neighbors, and children all across the world is indicative of the success of the neoliberal model and a warning for the future.

Jon V. Kofas, Ph.D. – Retired university professor of history – author of ten academic books and two dozens scholarly articles. Specializing in International Political economy, Kofas has taught courses and written on US diplomatic history, and the roles of the World Bank and IMF in the world.


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