One fascinating aspect of the UNICEF study is its use of what is now called “subjective wellbeing.” This means asking a person directly about his or her life satisfaction. There have been many recent studies of the subjective wellbeing of adults around the world. However, I know of no comparable research in which children were asked directly about their sense of wellbeing — 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 percent of children set their rating at six or higher. In the US, the proportion is much lower, at around 84 percent.
These subjective rankings also correlate highly with the children’s reported quality of interactions with their peers and parents. Some 80 percent of Dutch children report their classmates to be “kind and helpful,” compared to just 56 percent of US 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 the US’ 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 wellbeing. 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 wellbeing. Nothing could be more important for any society’s future health and prosperity.
Jeffrey Sachs is professor of sustainable development, professor of health policy and management and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also special adviser to the UN secretary-general on the Millennium Development Goals.
Copyright: Project Syndicate