• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 01st May, 2007

Wealth over well-being: UNICEF survey highlights challenges

Press coverage of the latest UNICEF report on well-being among children in the advanced economies of the world has obscured more fundamental questions that confront rich and poor nations alike.National league table positions inevitably grab the headlines — Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark race to the top; USA and UK slide into in the relegation zone. But the truer challenge all of them face is not about their individual performance as educators or immunizers, but about making wiser judgments about child development as a political priority.From that perspective, the difficulties facing the US or UK are of a piece with the critical decisions about future policy for emerging countries like Hungary and Poland. One kind of response may sacrifice children's well-being to the prospect of economic success; another will put child development needs closer to the heart of government strategy.UNICEF’s work is grounded in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and attempts to use reduction in child poverty to improve other aspects of children's health and development. It takes measurements on six dimensions: material well-being, health and safety, education, peer and family relationships, behaviors and risks, and young people’s subjective sense of their circumstances. The researchers recognize that no single dimension can stand as a reliable proxy for child well-being as a whole and that rankings in relation to single dimensions vary enormously from country to country.The report, furthermore, can shed little light on why some children do better than others. No correlation was found between investment in services and outcomes, nor between overall wealth of a nation and well-being. Distribution of wealth might provide part of the answer, but the report includes many counter-indications.Some commentators have drawn attention to differences between the anglophone countries and those in the continent of Europe. Others have noted the importance of a sense of belonging, potentially less powerful in countries like the US and UK The report itself notes the strong performance of Northern European countries, particularly Scandanavia and the Netherlands.But an arguably more illuminating way to explore patterns is to look at the significant differences between countries. Forty indicators were employed; on how many is a country more than a standard deviation away from the norm? It varies from as many as 13 or 14 in the case of the UK and the US to just one (reading literacy achievement aged 15 years) in the case of Spain. Through this statistical lens, four clusters of countries emerge. There are the rich who appear to put economic wealth before children's well-being and score badly on all six dimensions. The UK and US are in this cluster. There are countries with less developed economies and under-developed services for children but where strong families appear to offer some protection for children. Hungary, Portugal and Greece are typical here.There are countries with strong economies, a good distribution of wealth, strong services but who are dealing with a small number problem areas. Germany, Canada, Sweden and Switzerland are among the majority here.On this basis, only Spain appears to have it broadly right by performing in the middle of the distribution for 39 out of the 40 indicators. Ireland is something of an outlier in that it performs particularly badly for three of the material well-being indicators — reflecting the poor distribution of wealth in the country — but within the normal range for the other 37.The report acknowledges many gaps. Children's exposure to violence in the home could not be included because of problems of measurement. Children's emotional and mental health is badly under-represented. UNICEF describes these aspects of their report as 'work in progress'. But the results in this important area are consistent with what is known from other research. For example, Collishaw's study of the mental health of children over a 30 year period in the UK indicates steady deterioration whereas Verhulst's similar study in the Netherlands suggests a more even pattern.The results of what is an undoubtedly significant survey can therefore be cut several ways, but the take-home message is that there is something for every country to address. It is not possible to be top of the table for everything; but it is undesirable to be at the bottom in several categories. The challenge for governments is not unlike the challenge for parents. There is always something more to do. For some the requirement is for a big leap forward.background on poverty in EuropeThere are two broad ways of measuring poverty. Absolute poverty refers to an individual's ability to live; relative poverty to an individual's circumstance relative to other people in the society in which he or she lives. The European Union defines those in poverty as 'those whose resources (material, cultural, and social) are so limited as to exclude them from the minimum acceptable way of life in the Member States in which they live'. In the context of childhood, this has been measured by the proportion of children living in a household where the equivalent income is less than half the average income for the country as a whole.Rates in the OECD (including the EU) vary markedly from fewer than five per cent of children in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden to more than 20 per cent in the United States.Relative poverty as a concept has been criticized on several fronts. For example, it can obscure the fact that a child in poverty today can be many times better off than a child in poverty a decade ago, similarly that the family of a child in poverty in the United States may have almost three times as much disposable income as a family of a child in poverty in Hungary. Problems arise also because comparing a child to all children in society is less meaningful in large countries like the United States than in small countries like the Netherlands. Over a quarter of children in Arkansas live in poverty if the comparison is between the state and the US as a whole, but only 14% if each child is compared to others in the state. Finally, some well-off children become excluded from society by virtue of their health or behavior and not because of lack of wealth. It is partly for this reason that the concept of social exclusion has become so pervasive in the EU. background on the UNICEF study UNICEF Report Card 7 An Overview of Child Well-Being in Rich Countries represents the seventh 'report card' produced by the Innocenti Research Center in Florence. Other reports have included: Child Poverty in Rich Nations, Child Deaths by Injury in Rich Nations, Teenage Births in Rich Nations, Educational Disadvantage in Rich Nations, Child Maltreatment Deaths in Rich Nations, Child Poverty in Rich Nations. Two instruments, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Health Behaviour in School-age Children (HBSC) figure prominently in the study.

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