Evidence on child well-being across the globe

Ensuring children grow up to be healthy, productive and fulfilled adults are major goals of every society. Children across the world today face complex risks and challenges including the wide availability of unhealthy foods, the prevalence of bullying and increases in drug and alcohol abuse.

The United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, is a non-profit organization that works in 190 countries to improve children’s lives. They have released a new, comprehensive report on the well-being of children in 29 developed nations across the world.

The report measured five dimensions of children’s lives: material well-being, health and safety, education, behaviors and risks, and housing and environment.  It – used 26 indicators measured in each of the nations  including rates of poverty, mortality, alcohol and drug use, air pollution and exposure to violence. The broad review yielded some interesting results, which don’t bode well for children in the United States.

Scandinavian countries rank the highest, with the Netherlands, Norway, Iceland, Finland and Sweden occupying the top five spots, respectively. The United States ranks in the bottom third – 26th out of the 29 nations included in the report.

On the whole, there doesn’t seem to be a strong relationship between the wealth of a nation and overall child well-being. The bottom four spots are occupied by three of the poorest – Latvia, Lithuania and Romania – as well as the richest, the United States. And there are plenty of other examples where poorer nations rank higher on some indicators than more wealthy nations.

The report includes some interesting tidbits:

  • Only Canada, Greece and the United States have childhood obesity levels higher than 20 percent.
  • The United States is among only nine countries that report more than 30 percent of its children living in poverty, and among only four countries with an infant mortality rate higher than 6 percent. (There is some debate about whether infant mortality rates in the United States are higher because they include extremely premature babies who in other countries might not be classified as live births.)
  • Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the United States are the only countries in which the homicide rate rises above 4 per 100,000.

There are many take-home messages in a comprehensive report such as this. In reality, it provides a starting point for researchers, for examples in the fields of nutrition, education and child development, to conduct more focused studies and develop programs  that help improve child well-being.  Maybe most importantly, it’s a wake-up message for all of us that we need to make children a priority.

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