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UNICEF: Some Rich Countries Fail to Protect Children

  • Lisa Schlein

A group of boys walk past a partially collapsed row house in Baltimore, Maryland, Apr. 4, 2013. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 20 percent of American children are impoverished.

A group of boys walk past a partially collapsed row house in Baltimore, Maryland, Apr. 4, 2013. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 20 percent of American children are impoverished.

A new study by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) indicates some of the richest countries in the world are doing a poor job of protecting and promoting the well-being of their children.

In its report, Child well-being in rich countries - A Comparative Overview, UNICEF uses five measures to determine how well countries are taking care of their children. These include material wellbeing, health and safety, education, behavior and risks, and housing and environment.

The Netherlands and four Nordic countries: Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden -- top the rankings of the best-developed countries for children to live in. Four southern European countries: Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain - are in the lower half of the rankings table, with Romania holding up the bottom.

But, in 26th position is the United States, one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Chris de Neubourg is Chief of Social and Economic Policy, UNICEF Office of Research. He says the United States receives a failing grade because of the large number of children living in poverty and the wide inequality gap between rich and poor.

“We find that one out of four children in the United States lives in a family, in a poor family, which is shockingly high also to us. It is also a question of inequality. You have an excellent education system, excellent health system, but only not everybody has access to it and the equality in the access is very different between the U.S. and the other rich countries,” he said.

Alcohol abuse, bullying

De Neubourg says the United States does better in comparison to European countries with lower rates of alcohol abuse and less bullying among children. But, he notes teenage pregnancy in the United States is double that in Europe, and infant and child mortality rates are also twice as high.

The authors of the UNICEF study say more research is needed to ascertain the impact of the global economic crisis on children. But, preliminary findings give reason for concern. They say there is evidence that child poverty and poverty gaps already are increasing in some countries. They say many children are dropping out of school and are not employed or involved in any training programs.

De Neubourg says UNICEF is very concerned about the impact austerity measures adopted by some governments are having on children.

“A lot of governments say, well we have to address our sovereign debt crisis because we do not want to leave the debt for the next generation, which are the children," he said. "So,…the argument is we will present the bill to the children in the future. So, we say, well, you probably are also presenting the bill to the children now. So, UNICEF’S position would be not now and never in the sense the last thing you should do as governments is reduce your expenditure for children, for education, for families of children and for families in special trouble.”

Despite setbacks in some countries on specific indicators, the study notes steady improvement since 2000 in various aspects of child well-being in the industrialized world. UNICEF says every country for which data are available saw reductions in infant mortality and "low family affluence." The rate of enrollment in institutes of higher education has also increased.

There also is some good news in the area of ‘behaviors and risks’ in the 29 countries under review. The study finds only 8 percent of 11 to 15-year-olds say they smoke cigarettes at least once a week. Just 15 percent report having been intoxicated at least twice in their life, and 99 percent of girls report not getting pregnant while still a teenager.
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