The United States and Britain ranked as the worst places to be a child, according to a UNICEF study of more than 20 developed nations released Wednesday. The Netherlands was the best, it says, followed by Sweden and Denmark.
UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Center in Italy ranked the countries in six categories: material well-being, health, education, relationships, behaviors and risks, and young people’s own sense of happiness.
The finding that children in the richest countries are not necessarily the best-off surprised many, said the director of the study, Marta Santos Pais. The Czech Republic, for example, ranked above countries with a higher per capita income, such as Austria, France, the United States and Britain, in part because of a more equitable distribution of wealth and higher relative investment in education and public health.
Some of the wealthier countries’ lower rankings were a result of less spending on social programs and “dog-eat-dog” competition in jobs that led to adults spending less time with their children and heightened alienation among peers, one of the report’s authors, Jonathan Bradshaw, said at a televised news conference in London.
“The findings that we got today are a consequence of long-term underinvestment in children,” said Bradshaw, who is also professor of social policy at York University in England.
The highest ranking for the United States was in education, where it placed 12th among the 21 countries. But the U.S. and Britain landed in the lowest third in five of the six categories.
The U.S. was at the bottom of the list in health and safety, mostly because of high rates of child mortality and accidental deaths. It was next to last in family and peer relationships and risk-taking behavior. The U.S. has the highest proportion of children living in single-family homes, which the study defined as an indicator for increased risk of poverty and poor health, though it “may seem unfair and insensitive,” it says. The U.S., which ranked 17th in the percentage of children who live in relative poverty, was also close to last when it comes to children eating and talking frequently with their families.
Britain had the highest rate of children involved in activities that endangered their welfare: 31% of those studied said they had been drunk at least twice by the age of 15 (compared with 11.6% for the United States), and 38% had had sexual intercourse by that age (statistics unavailable for the U.S.). Canada had the highest rate of children who had smoked marijuana by age 15 -- 40.4% (compared with 31.4% in the U.S.). Japan ranked the worst on “subjective well-being,” with 30% of children agreeing with the statement “I am lonely” -- three times higher than the next-highest-scoring country.
Children in the Netherlands, Spain and Greece said they were the happiest, and those in Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands spent the most time with their families and friends.
Because of a lack of comparable data, the study did not address children’s exposure to domestic violence, both as victims and as witnesses, and children’s mental and emotional health.
The report acknowledges that some of the assessment scales have “weak spots.”
The study, for example, measured relative affluence by asking whether a family owned a vehicle, a computer, whether children had their own bedroom, and how often the family traveled on holidays. Some answers might depend on the quality of public transit and real estate prices, making the average child in New York’s affluent areas seem equal to one in a less-developed country because of the constraints of city living.
The authors wrote that as the first attempt at a multidimensional overview of children’s well-being in developed countries, the survey was “a work in progress in need of improved definitions and better data.”
But they said it was nonetheless a first step in providing benchmarks for comparing countries and highlighting poor performance in otherwise rich nations.
“All countries have weaknesses to be addressed,” said Santos Pais, the study’s director.
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The U.S. and Britain landed at the bottom of a U.N. ranking of the quality of life for children in developed countries.
Average ranking position of child well-being in developed countries
*--* Netherlands 4.2 Sweden 5.0 Denmark 7.2 Finland 7.5 Spain 8.0
Portugal 13.7 Austria 13.8 Hungary 14.5 United States 18.0 Britain 18.2