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 wellbeing in rich countries, takes a holistic view of the conditions of children in the US, 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 UK are ranked in the middle.
The study assesses children’s wellbeing 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 wellbeing.
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 daycare, pre-school and primary and secondary education. Moreover, all children are well covered by effective healthcare 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 wellbeing of the poor, because poor voters turn out in lower numbers and do not finance the US’ 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 the US’ poor.
The differences between the social democracies and the US show up strongly in category after category.
In the social democracies, less than 10 percent 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 percent.
US CHILDREN LOSE OUT
US 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 about 35 births for every 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19, compared to fewer than 10 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.