Congratulations: Children in the United States do not have the worst quality of life in the developed world. That honor is held by Britain–with the United States a close second. America’s infant mortality rate is exceeded only by Hungary’s; New Zealand is the only country where more people under 19 meet violent deaths each year. On teenage motherhood, we’re way ahead: forty-six births for every 1,000 girls between 15 and 19. The closest challenger (New Zealand again) can manage only thirty. Children born in the richest nation on earth are also the most likely to be noticeably poorer than their neighbors: 21.7 percent of America’s children live in households whose income is less than half the national median. Britain, at 16.2 percent, comes second in the inequality sweepstakes.
The statistics come from a new Unicef report, Child Poverty in Perspective: An Overview of Child Well-Being in Rich Countries, which has been largely ignored in the United States. The report assesses children’s lives in twenty-one wealthy nations under a range of headings, from material well-being to family and peer relationships. Like all such studies, this one has its flaws, some of them self-acknowledged. But there is no mistaking the underlying pattern or the weight of suffering and injustice it represents.
The study shows that the two countries with the greatest economic inequality are also failing their children in less tangible ways. British children reported the worst family and peer relationships and the highest incidence overall of risky behavior (smoking, drinking and unprotected sex); American children ranked third from the bottom (above Britain and Poland) in terms of their personal feelings of well-being. Sure, American adolescents drink and smoke less than kids in some other countries. But the cost of the right’s attempt to meet teenage sexuality with moralizing and repression rather than education is obvious in the teenage pregnancy rates. The country that came out best overall in the study was the Netherlands, known for its traditions of openness and tolerance.
The areas where American children fare worse than most–infant mortality, low birth weight, early childbearing, family instability and child poverty–are all directly related to the status of women. As Ruth Rosen writes in this issue, American women are still underpaid; still working double shifts; still shouldering on their own the burden of care for children and the elderly; still denied the right to control their fertility; still seen as a “special interest group” rather than half the nation. It is incredible that these things still need saying more than a generation after the rebirth of the women’s movement. If the other half can’t be made to see that women’s rights are vital for the whole community, the effects of gender inequality on children of both sexes might at least offer a compelling argument.
That the two countries deemed to do the least for their own children are those that have led the war in Iraq is obvious. The reasons are less easy to pin down. One can talk about military as opposed to social spending; about pro-business, oil-driven economies; about the distractions of patriotism and the culture of aggression; about valuing the imperatives of power above the duty of care. But however one chooses to name it, the deep, intractable connection between military adventurism abroad and the neglect of needs at home has never been more starkly evident. The pity is that it’s so difficult to fight the problem, so hard to focus on a pregnant teenager too scared to ask for help or a child hungry at school when the casualty figures from Baghdad demand our attention. The fog of war may be most blinding for the folks back home.