U.S. Has Highest Child Poverty Rate in Developed World

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The U.S. has the highest child poverty rate among 24 OECD countries, indicates UNICEF in its latest Innocenti Research Centre Report Card. The Report Card was issued in February of this year, and it rates many different aspects of child well-being in OECD countries. This week and in coming weeks, I will review some of the findings.

Source: UNICEF, Child Poverty in Perspective: An Overview of Child Well-Being in Rich Countries, Innocenti Report Card 7, 2007.

When child poverty is defined as the percent of 0 to 17 year-olds in households with earnings of less than 50 percent of the national median income, the United States scores worst among developed nations. Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden have the lowest child poverty rates.

The U.S. is not only last, it is far behind the second-to-last country, New Zealand. New Zealand beats the U.S. by more than 5 percentage points. This is the largest difference between two adjacent countries in the entire ranking.

We cannot blame the last place ranking of the U.S. on that favorite target—single parents. The Report Card states,
Variations between countries in the proportion of children growing up in lone-parent families do not explain national poverty rates. Sweden, for example, has a higher proportion of children living in lone-parent families than the United States or the United Kingdom but a much lower child poverty rate than either.
Poverty is still fundamentally an issue of low income, not family structure.

This measure of poverty, as less than 50 percent of the national median, is really a measure of income inequality. It is a relative measure, not an absolute one. In terms of the absolute value of income, a household defined as in poverty in the U.S. could have higher earnings than a household that is not in relative income poverty in a poorer developed nation.

This point is an important one to keep in mind. On the other hand, Americans judge their well-being relative to other Americans, not relative to the living standards of people in countries like Greece, Poland and the Czech Republic.

On the broader measure of the material well-being of children, the U.S. places 17th out of the 21 countries with complete data. This placement is better, but not much better.

The Report Card defines material well-being as an average of measures of relative income poverty, households without jobs and reported deprivation.

The U.S. is 17th in well-being but places highly—5th (out of 24)—in the percentage of children living in households without an employed parent. Many of the countries with lower rates of relative income poverty among children have higher unemployment rates than the U.S. It is easier to find a job in the U.S. and also easier to be impoverished. This situation occurs because in most developed nations, the public sees poverty as harmful to the nation. In the U.S., we see people not working as the greater threat. The end result is that we have many families that can be described as working poor.

The reported deprivation scale is an average of three items: affluence, educational resources, and books.

The affluence measure asks children if their family owns an automobile, if they have their own bedroom, if they have traveled on vacation with their family and how many computers their family owns. This measure allows the high standard of living in the U.S. to be factored in.

The U.S. scores highly on affluence—6th (out of 20)—but still some distance from number one. Norway, Netherlands, Sweden, Canada and Switzerland all score higher. Denmark is immediately behind the U.S.

The U.S. is 13th (out of 24) in the percentage of children reporting less than six educational possessions, and a depressing 22nd (out of 24) on the percentage of children reporting less than 10 books in the home. The low score for the U.S. in these areas cannot be simply because children are using the worldwide web for their information. Countries with equal or higher technological development (e.g., Japan, Germany and Canada) outscore the U.S. in children with books.

“Variation in government policy appears to account for most of the variation in child poverty levels between OECD countries,” states the Innocenti Centre. In others words, the U.S. could have lower child poverty rates, we just have to want it.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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