Below the surface of many U.S. stories about the plight of the world’s children, the careful reader sees a subtext – a suggestion that it is over there, and not here, that awful things happen to children. The careful reader knows this isn’t so, that, sadly, U.S. children suffer, too. Yet even the careful reader might be surprised at a new UNICEF report that gives the United States abysmal marks on children’s welfare.
As depicted in a table on page 2, Child well-being in rich countries: A comparative overview, released Wednesday by UNICEF’s Office of Research, ranked the United States 26th out of 29 industrialized countries evaluated. The United States joined Romania as the only countries placing in the bottom third on every metric: material well-being, health & safety; education; behaviors & risks; and housing & environment. (Ireland was the only English-speaking country to place in the upper third of the list, which ranked the Netherlands 1st.)
The United States ranked dead last on obesity – nearly 30% of its children, close to 10 points higher than any other country – though it had the lowest rate of alcohol abuse. The United States had the 3d worst homicide rate for children, and was 1 of only 4 countries where child homicides exceeded 4 per 100,000. In other countries, that number is much lower, between 0 and 2.5.
The report singled out the United States’ low ranking as evidence that “there does not appear to be a strong relationship between per capita GDP and overall child well-being.” (p. 3) In other words: It is not how much wealth a country has, but on whose behalf a country chooses to allocate that wealth.