UNICEF is best known for its work on behalf of children in the developing world, but its latest report turns an eye to the well-being of children in 21 wealthy nations including the United States, which ranks second to the bottom overall.
The UNICEF Innocenti Research Center Report Card, "Child Poverty in Perspective: An Overview of Child Well-Being in Rich Countries," looks at six dimensions of child well-being: material well-being, health and safety, educational well-being, family and peer relationships, behaviors and risks, and young people's own perceptions of their well-being.
"[Child well-being] is a bell weather for where we'll end up in the global market 20 years from now--more than, say, how we're spending our money in other areas, and what we're doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. It impacts our global security," says Laura Beavers, research associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which sponsors the Kids Count project to track child well-being in each U.S. state.
While none of the countries studied can claim "mission accomplished" in securing child well-being in every measurement, the United States fared particularly poorly. It ranked last in health and safety, primarily because of high rates of infant mortality, low birth weight, and deaths from accidents and injuries. The United States also showed significantly higher rates of obesity and overweight teenagers, and even the teen birth rate--which has declined dramatically in the past decade--remains higher than in other rich countries.
Few in the field are surprised by the findings, which are consistent with existing data on child well-being, educational attainment, and poverty. But some children's advocates are greeting the study with surprising optimism.
"It's very nice that it is coming out at this time," says Linda Spears, vice president of corporate communications and development at the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA). "I'm more optimistic now than I've ever been that this may help galvanize energy on Capitol Hill and encourage advocates to pay attention."
The data are drawn from two large surveys--an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) international student assessment and a 2001 World Health Organization survey of health behavior in school-age children--and compare averages. The study's authors acknowledge that this creates complications in drawing conclusions for a country as large and stratified as the United States. Smaller, more homogenous countries like the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland received higher marks overall.
Within the United States, the picture is more complex. "It's clear that child well-being has been improving slowly since the 1990s, with a glitch during the recession in the early 2000s," says Harold Leibovitz, director of strategic communications with the Foundation for Child Development.
In particular, the United States is doing better in areas that reflect "cultural values," Leibovitz says, citing the declining teen birth rate, improvements in children's social and emotional health, and their sense of connection to religious groups and communities.
"But in areas that have to do with policy and the government's role in supporting development of children, we have not been doing as well," he says.
America's childhood obesity epidemic, increasing child poverty rates, and an average on-time high school graduation rate of only 70 percent (and as low as 50 percent in at least 11 urban areas) continue to drive down overall child well-being.
"If we had our resources directed in the right way, we wouldn't be where we are. We have the resources to do it, but we haven't had the political will to do it, especially over the last five years," says the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Laura Beavers.
This political climate may be changing. The report comes as states across the country are considering bipartisan approaches to extend health care coverage to more of the nearly 47 million Americans--including 8 million children--who are uninsured. Many are also considering universal pre-kindergarten and early learning initiatives.
In Washington, the 110th Congress is working to renew the effective but financially strapped State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), and finalizing legislation to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 per hour by 2009. This month, the U.S. Senate has begun to hold meetings to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind education reform act.
At the same time, lawmakers are drafting the fiscal year 2008 federal budget, which sets funding guidelines for programs including education, Head Start, child care assistance, juvenile justice programs, public assistance, and health insurance.
"Twenty years ago, we had good ideas and an intuitive sense of what works, but no data and no outcomes for children to say, 'This produces changes,'" says CWLA's Spears. "Now, there are real things for policymakers to latch on to."
The study's authors hope the report will spark discussion--both within and among these countries--about what works, and encourage each country to focus attention on their own children, as they do those in the developing world.
"What we don't want is for everyone to look at the summary ranking table and say, 'The United States is down at the very end, that can't be right' or, 'That's terrible," says David Parker, deputy director of the Innocenti Research Center, which released the study. "This is not about trying to find sensational bottom lines."
Later this year, UNICEF plans to release a comparison of early childhood development, education, and care across the world's wealthier democracies.
The United States is one of two countries that have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international treaty that protects children's rights and access to services and under whose mandate the new study was produced. Somalia is the other country that has not ratified the treaty.
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