Survey reveals US fares poorly in child welfare

The United States (US) has some of the industrial world’s worst rates of infant mortality, teenage pregnancy and child poverty, even though it spends more per child than better-performing countries such as Switzerland, Japan and the Netherlands, a new survey indicates.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a Paris-based watchdog of industrialised nations, urged the United States to shift more of its public spending to its youngest children, under the age of six, to improve their health and educational performance.

The report, released on Tuesday, is called Doing Better for Children, and marks the first time the OECD has reported on child well-being within its 30-member countries.

The US spends an average of $140 000 per child, well over the OECD average of $125 000. But this spending is skewed heavily toward older children between 12 and 17, the survey showed.

US spending on children under the age of six, a period the OECD says is key to children’s future well-being, lags far behind that of other countries, amounting to only $20 000 per child on average compared to the organisation’s average of $30 000, according to the survey.

“A better balance of spending between the ‘Dora the Explorer’ years of early childhood and the teenage ‘Facebook’ years would help improve the health, education and well-being of all children in the long term,” the OECD said.

As a result, it says, infant mortality in the US is the fourth-worst in the OECD after Mexico, Turkey and Slovakia.

America’s 15-year-olds rank seventh from the bottom on the OECD’s measure of average educational achievement. Child poverty rates in the US are nearly double the organisation’s average, at 21,6% compared to 12,4%.

The rate of teen births in the US is three times the OECD average, with only Mexico recording a higher rate among OECD countries, the report said.

Timothy Smeeding, author of Poor Kids in a Rich Country: America’s Children in Comparative Perspective, said America’s troubles stem from a flawed mix of government spending and not enough help for the working poor.

“Most of what we spend is for health care, so there is less money to spend on income support programs, to keep the incomes of the poor up.
We do spend highly on education—but it’s off the charts on health care,” he said.

Some European countries have public pre-schools and day care centres, for example.

“The parents in Europe aren’t as poor. They have universal health care, and it’s understood that you have access to health care without recrimination. They have children when they’re ready,” said Smeeding, who also heads the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“A lot of kids born in our country are accidents,” he said.

“Young women need to learn to wait to finish their education, not have a kid at 18 or 19. And it is these poor, unwed mothers having most of the babies in the US”

Among other OECD countries, France, Germany, Britain and Belgium spend more on their children than the US, while Switzerland, Ireland, Australia and Italy spend less, according to the survey.

The countries that spend the most on early childhood include Hungary, Finland and the Slovak Republic, which each devote well over a quarter of all childhood spending to children under the age of six.

Britain also spends more than the OECD average on its children, and like the US, devotes most of this spending to its older children between the ages of 12 and 17.

But Britain is plagued by high underage drinking and teenage pregnancy rates. British teen drunkenness, as measured by the number of 13 and 15-year-olds having been drunk at least twice, topped the charts at 33%, far above the OECD average of 20% and the 12% rate recorded in the US—Sapa

Associated Press Writer Rachel Kurowski in Paris contributed to this report

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