Saturday, November 29, 2014

Suffer the Children, Suffer the Country

NEW YORK – Children are every country’s most vital resource. This is true not just morally, but also economically. Investing in the health, education, and skills of children offers the highest economic returns to a country. A new study by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) shows which high-income countries are doing well when it comes to making these investments – and which are doing poorly.

The report, Child Well-Being in Rich Countries, takes a holistic view of the conditions of children in the United States, Canada, and Europe – 29 countries in all. The top-ranked countries, where children are best off, are the social democracies of Western Europe. The Netherlands heads the list, followed by Norway, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, and Germany.

At the bottom one finds a major surprise: the US, the richest large economy in the world, is in 26th place, followed by three much poorer countries: Lithuania, Latvia, and Romania. France and the United Kingdom are ranked in the middle.

The study assesses children’s well-being in terms of material conditions (related to household-income levels); health and safety; education; risky behavior (such as excessive alcohol consumption); and physical environment, including housing conditions. Although the study is limited to high-income countries, national governments – and even cities – in other parts of the world should replicate it to analyze their own children’s well-being.

The gaps between the northern European countries and the US are the most telling. Northern European countries generally provide cash support to families to ensure that all children are raised in decent conditions, and they undertake ambitious social programs to provide high-quality day care, pre-school, and primary and secondary education. Moreover, all children are well covered by effective health-care systems.

The US, with its individualist, free-market ideology, is very different. There is little cash support for families. Government programs supposedly provide a social safety net, but politicians are, in fact, largely indifferent to the well-being of the poor, because poor voters turn out in lower numbers and do not finance America’s expensive election campaigns. Indeed, the evidence strongly suggests that US politicians tend to listen and respond only to their richer constituents. The so-called safety net has suffered accordingly, as have America’s poor.

The differences between the social democracies and the US show up strongly in category after category. In the social democracies, less than 10% of children grow up in relative poverty (meaning households with less than half of the country’s median income). In the US, the rate of relative poverty exceeds 20%.

American children suffer far more from low birth weight (a major danger signal for later life); being overweight at ages 11, 13, and 15; and very high rates of teenage fertility. There are around 35 births for every 1,000 girls aged 15-19, compared to fewer than ten per thousand in the northern European countries.

Likewise, US children face considerably more violence in society than children in other high-income countries do. That may not be surprising, but it is deeply troubling, because children’s exposure to violence is a major threat to their physical, emotional, and cognitive development. Homicide rates in the US are roughly five times higher than in northern Europe.

One fascinating aspect of the UNICEF study is its use of what is now called “subjective well-being.” This means asking a person directly about his or her life satisfaction. There have been many recent studies of the subjective well-being of adults around the world.  But I know of no comparable research in which children were asked directly about their sense of well-being – a very smart question indeed.

Here, the evidence suggests that northern Europe’s children generally appreciate their remarkable advantages. The children were asked to rate their “life satisfaction” on an 11-step ladder. In the Netherlands, a remarkable 95% of children set their rating at six or higher. In the US, the proportion is much lower, at around 84%. These subjective rankings also correlate highly with the children’s reported quality of interactions with their peers and parents. Some 80% of Dutch children report their classmates to be “kind and helpful,” compared to just 56% of American children.

The costs to the US of allowing so many of its children to grow up in poverty, poor health, poor schools, and poor housing are staggering. A shocking proportion ends up serving time in prison – especially in the case of non-white poor children. Even those fortunate not to fall into the trap of America’s vast prison system often end up unemployed and even unemployable, without the skills needed to obtain and keep a decent job.

Americans have been blinded to these calamitous mistakes partly by a long history of racism, as well as by a misplaced faith in “rugged individualism.” For example, some white families have opposed public financing for education, because they believe that their tax money goes disproportionately to help poorer non-white students.

The result, however, is that everybody loses. Schools underperform; poverty remains high; and the resulting high rates of unemployment and crime impose huge financial and social costs on US society.

The UNICEF findings are powerful. High national incomes are not enough to ensure children’s well-being. Societies that have a strong commitment to equal opportunity for all of their children – and that are prepared to invest public funds on their behalf – end up with much better outcomes.

Every country should compare the conditions of its young people with those reported by UNICEF, and use the results to help guide expanded investment in their children’s well-being. Nothing could be more important for any society’s future health and prosperity.

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    1. CommentedPaul Daley

      Politicians respond to votes. If there really is a problem with the welfare of children in democracies, then the best solution might simply be to give children the vote, and allow their parents or guardians to cast proxy votes for them until they come of age. After all, parents and guardians already act for children in the courts and in business. Why not at the ballot box as well?

    2. CommentedBurak M

      works like this are what progresses the world and forces those in an alternate universe, specially on the right to face some undesirable truths.

      I cannot help but remember the "America is not the best country in the world" line in the Newsroom.

    3. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

      "Subjective well being" is a poor standard. There are objective standards of nutrition, housing, health, education, leisure, life expectancy, Mortality, social inclusion, choice and freedom to mention a few.

      We live in a world of huge productive capacity. Distribution is the issue.

    4. CommentedMark Pitts

      Real (inflation adjusted) spending per child on K-12 education has roughly doubled in the last 30 years. Yet, reading and math scores are down. Without performance measures for teachers, only the teachers' unions win.

    5. Commentedchad bircher

      The top countries you listed are Norway, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, and Germany. Acording to Iceland has a fairly stable population. Every one of the other countries you listed has an interesting demographic problem: The 0-4 year old group is the smallest 5 year cohort of any born since WWII.
      In 20 years the region you described will have 10M residents move from 45-49 up to 65-69. These retirees will be replaced by the 5.5M children ages 0-4. How will 1 worker replace 2 retirees and also support their own children? Do you think the 65-69 year olds will decide to forgoe retirement for the good of the younger?

    6. Commentedchad bircher

      This is a ridiculous farce of "news."
      1) If the median income is lower in Norway than in the US then children living at half of the median income in the US are proportionally better off than children at half of the median income in Norway.
      2) If a family in Cisco Texas lives at half the median income, that is drastically different than a family in Manhattan living at half the median income. The US is big enough that this metric doesn't even make sense to compare.
      3) Low birth weight is a feature of a system where all live births are considered births. If you do not count a 22 week old premie who dies during delivery, then of course you have fewer low weight births.
      4) The study assumes that day care and preschool are positive. Perhaps they are not - studies are only conclusive for children in impoverished families (who do get free child care for the most part).
      5) The low birth rate in Northern Europe (reflected in low teenage birth rate) is NOT a positive. Check out the census international gateway and ask where Norway and Germany will be in 20 years.
      6) Finally, you seem to assume that the war on poverty is the way to end poverty. The fastest way to raise the living standard of poor children is for children's mothers to marry the children's fathers. Perhaps government programs should be tied to marriage? Maybe end no-fault divorce?

    7. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      The equation is very simple.
      Even this article, that tries to show a good example uses the motivation of "investing into children is beneficial for economic development".
      In the US, the stalwart of free economic progress and infinite economic growth, this has gone into the extremes and everything is sacrificed on the altar of profit and economic growth.
      As Bard Pitt says in the closing scene of the movie "Killing Them Softly" America is a business first of all.
      But it will happen, and it is already happening in other countries too, as the economic situation worsens even the most social oriented Northern European countries will "offload" the ballast and sacrifice the lower social layers in order to save the "ship", the present status quo, as it is very obviously happening in the UK, Spain, Greece and other countries right now.
      Our whole paradigm, the whole socio-economic system is wrong.
      We have to change upside down.
      We need economy in order to care for our children, in order to maintain normal, mutually complementing human relationships.
      We need to settle back to a natural necessity/available resources based lifestyle.
      Our life should not be dictated by profit and growth, that is a totally unnatural and unsustainable attitude, which started collapsing as we speak, we only need economy to sustain our necessities and provide a basis for a truly human, social life.
      Our purpose in life is not amassing wealth, material possessions, chasing artificial pleasures. Our purpose is to maintain and sustain natural life, build and maintain connections, to contribute to the overall balance and homoeostasis of the natural system.

    8. Commentedjim bridgeman

      It would be interesting to correlate these rankings with the levels of ethnic diversity and with the rates of immigration into the countries involved. It's easy to hypothecate political differences as a causal factor but a lot of other covariates are at play, too.