Some of world’s richest countries let poorest children fall further behind – UN

3 December 2010

Italy, the United States, Greece, Belgium and the United Kingdom top a list of two dozen developed countries that let their most vulnerable children fall even further behind, with enormous consequences not only for the youngsters themselves but for the economy and society at large, according to a new United Nations report released today.

Italy, the United States, Greece, Belgium and the United Kingdom top a list of two dozen developed countries that let their most vulnerable children fall even further behind, with enormous consequences not only for the youngsters themselves but for the economy and society at large, according to a new United Nations report released today.

“As debates rage on austerity measures and social spending cuts, the report focuses on the hundreds of thousands of children who risk being left behind in the world’s richest countries,” Gordon Alexander, Director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Innocenti Research Centre, said of the study, which puts Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Switzerland and the Netherlands at the top of those caring for their least advantaged children.

“This need not happen – the standard set out in this report is not based on some theoretical ideal of greater equality but on what some OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries have already achieved for their children.”

The study – Report Card 9: The Children Left Behind – for the first time ranks 24 of the 31 OECD top industrialized countries in terms of equality in health, education and material well-being for their children, focusing on bottom-end inequality for the most disadvantaged children.

With much of the data coming from before the current financial crisis, the report calls its findings a “snapshot in good times,” warning that the heaviest consequences of an economic downturn tend to fall on the most vulnerable families and their children.

“In hard times, the poorest children should be the first to be protected, not the last to be considered,” it declares. “A child has only one chance to develop normally in mind and body. And it is a primary responsibility of government to protect that chance – in good times and in bad.”

Hundreds of studies in OECD countries have shown that the costs of children falling too far behind include a greater likelihood of inadequate nutrition, lower educational achievement, chronic stress for the child and impaired development, but this long list of problems also translates into significant costs for society as a whole.

“Unnecessary bottom-end inequality prepares a bill which is quickly presented to taxpayers in the form of increased strain on health and hospital services, on remedial schooling, on welfare,” the report stresses.

It cites those countries which have more effectively used family benefits and tax breaks to close the gap on child inequality and poverty as showing that the problem can be eased through policy decisions, without sacrificing efficiency and economic performance.

“The 24 OECD countries being compared are all highly developed nations with a similar capacity to limit child poverty,” Mr. Alexander said. “The fact that some countries are doing better than others shows that the pattern of inequality can be broken, and that when exclusion is identified early, action can be taken to prevent a deep fall. The variation between countries revealed in the report offers a realistic goal for improvement.”

In addition to those leading the way in promoting equality in children’s well-being and those letting their children fall further behind, the study also found that Switzerland has the least inequality in material well-being closely followed by Iceland and the Netherlands, with the highest relative gaps reported in Slovakia, the US and Hungary.

Also, inequality in educational achievement (reading, maths and science literacy) is lowest in Finland, followed by Ireland and Canada, and highest in Belgium, then France and Austria.

The study also found that the lowest levels of inequality for health are registered in the Netherlands, followed by Norway and Portugal, with the widest gaps found in Hungary, Italy and the US.

The countries measured were: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK and US.

Seven other OECD countries – Australia, Chile, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Republic of Korea and Turkey – are also included in the report, but are not given a group ranking as they did not have enough data for at least one of the three dimensions measured.

 

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