The UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre recently issued Report Card 10, “Measuring child poverty”, which identifies the United States as having the second highest incidence of child poverty of among 35 of the world’s richest nations. Among EU countries and other countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United States, with 23.1% of its children living in households which fall within “poverty” levels as defined by the OECD, ranked 34th of 35, just above Romania. Only in Romania were a higher percentage of the nation’s children living in poverty.
It is not news that the United States has a high percentage of children living in poverty. As the National Center for Children in Poverty notes, 21% of U.S. children live below the federal poverty line and 44% of U.S. children live in low-income families. Indeed, children, who represent just 24% of the U.S. population, make up 34% of the U.S. population living below the U.S. federal poverty line.
While it is true that the two measure different things: the federal poverty standard measures “absolute poverty” and the OECD standard measures “relative poverty,” the message is the same–an astonishing number of children in one of the richest countries in the world live in poverty, and that the United States, a country that likes to think of itself as a model of economic prosperity for the world, when compared to countries which are its economic peers or near-peers, falls below all with the sole exception of Romania.
Headlines have focused on the comparison with Romania, but the really interesting aspect of the report does not actually involve the U.S.
The UNICEF report also includes the “child deprivation” ranking of the EU nations, providing a perspective into what the international community identifies as necessary for raising healthy children. The report identifies 14 items, the lack of two of which identifies children as deprived. The required items go beyond merely ensuring the basics for sustaining life, but measure the quality of life. It is not enough that there is food, but the food must be nutrious, with fruit and vegetables and protein every day. It is not enough that the child have shelter, but the child must also have enough light and room to do homework, and be able to invite friends home to play and eat. It is also not enough that the child have clothing, but the child must also have at least some new clothing. The list also includes items necessary to developing young minds through the exchange of ideas found in books (other than school books) and through the internet. And the opportunity to be involved in social activities with classmates–money to participate in school trips and events, and the opportunity to play, with outdoor equipment like bicycles or rollerskates and indoor games and toys.
In measuring child deprivation, the report uses a standard of basic childhood comforts that greatly exceeds the rather modest standard of living decried by conservative commentators skeptical of the U.S. poverty rate as overly luxurious. The UNICEF report presumes that children’s most basic needs–food, shelter, health care, personal hygiene products necessary to keep clean and healthy, such as soap, toothpaste, and diapers where necessary–alone are insufficient without ensuring that the food is the right kind of food, and that children have the opportunity to participate in the larger society through the exchange of knowledge (through books and the internet) and social interaction and to grow as individuals through play and leisure activities.
The U.S. is not part of the ranking, but it is intriguing to consider how the U.S. might rate against its economic peers in the EU. Because the deprivation standard is based on an objective set of criteria, the very high end of U.S. income would have no effect on the relative position of its poorest children, as could be argued was a factor in the U.S.’s poor showing in the relative poverty ranking. Still, it seems likely the U.S. would also rank quite low on the child deprivation scale as well. U.S. government programs focus on the most basic needs–food, shelter, and, to some extent, health care–alone. There are no provisions for hygiene items and new clothes, let alone internet or subsidies for school field trips. Indeed, some politicians argue that the U.S. government provides too much, blunting ambition to suceed by providing too many services to people in need. (There is little evidence that cuts to programs gets more people to work.) Others argue that the current economic crisis means we must cut these very basic supports in order to shore up our national debt.
Both arguments are short-sighted. If, as these same politicians say, children are our nation’s future, shouldn’t we give them not just the bare minimum to survive, but the basics they need to thrive? Nutritious food to grow strong bodies, space and books enough to develop young creative minds, and opportunitiy for play and friends to encourage engagement in society. Without these things, we are impoverishing not only our children’s opportunity to grow but also our nation’s future.
Moreover, the report demonstrates that the current economic climate is not a valid excuse for shortchanging a nation’s children. Although Iceland is recovering from bankrupty, and Ireland is not far from bankruptcy, both have “child deprivation” rates of less than 5%. The report demonstrates that governments can take effective action to limit child poverty and prepare our children for the future.
As Gordon Alexander, the director of UNICEF’s Office of Research, noted, “The best performers show it is possible to address poverty within the current fiscal space. On the flip side, failure to protect children from today’s economic crisis is one of the most costly mistakes a society can make.” It is possible to do better than we do.