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 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%.
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.
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.
American conservatives used to consider educating our children an asset. That conservative ethos has shriveled into elitism, contempt for everyone and anything that doesn’t muster enough dollars to catch the eye of corporate princes.
The footmen for the moneyed class assigned the task of keeping this nation’s politics tidy – see little need to educate the poor. After all, we can just just hire folks from other countries to fill necessary tasks. Or move the jobs closer to a supply of wage earners educated at some other nation’s expense.