Map: How 35 countries compare on child poverty (the U.S. is ranked 34th)

April 15, 2013

Click on the map to enlarge. (Data source: UNICEF)

A new report by the United Nations Children's Fund, on the well-being of children in 35 developed nations, turned up some alarming statistics about child poverty. More than one in five American children fall below a relative poverty line, which UNICEF defines as living in a household that earns less than half of the national median. The United States ranks 34th of the 35 countries surveyed, above only Romania and below virtually all of Europe plus Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

The above map gives a comparative sense of the data. The blue countries have less than 10 percent of its children below UNICEF's relative poverty line, with the red countries approaching 25 percent. Southern European countries, among the most effected by the euro crisis, have some of the worst rates, although none as low as the United States. Former Soviet countries also score poorly. Northern European countries score the highest. English-speaking countries tend to fall somewhere in the middle.

The poor U.S. showing in this data may reflect growing income inequality. According to one metric of inequality, a statistical measurement called the gini coefficient, the U.S. economy is one of the most unequal in the developed world. This would explain why the United States, on child poverty, is ranked between Bulgaria and Romania, though Americans are on average six times richer than Bulgarians and Romanians.

Here, from the UNICEF report, is the chart of relative child poverty rates (the grey countries are marked separately because they could not provide data for all other indices and are thus not included in the final rankings):

Source: UNICEF

To be clear, this data only reflects developed countries; it tells us nothing about how children in the United States or Europe compare to, for example, children in sub-Saharan Africa. But looking at how developed economies compare can help give us a rough approximation of how these countries are doing at child welfare. And UNICEF is using its own "poverty line" here; the more typical international definition is a family that lives on less than $1.25 or $2 per day. Almost no Americans qualify for this definition. Internally, the United States defines the poverty line as a family living on less than about $22,000 per year, which includes about 15 percent of Americans.

Still, UNICEF's data is important for measuring the share of children who are substantively poorer than their national average, which has important implications for the cost of food, housing, health care and other essentials. Its research shows that children are more likely to fall below this relative poverty line in the United States than in almost any other developed country.

But the picture looks even worse when you examine just how far below the relative poverty line these children tend to fall. The UNICEF report looks at something it calls the "child poverty gap," which measures how far the average poor child falls below the relative poverty line. It does this by measuring the gap between the relative poverty line and the average income of poor families.

Alarmingly, the United States also scores second-to-last on this measurement, with the average poor child living in a home that makes 36 percent less than the relative poverty line. Only Italy has a wider gap. Here's the chart for child poverty gaps:

Source: UNICEF

We'll have more on the UNICEF report and what it means for the world's children later on, so please check back.

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