The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. ranks near bottom of advanced nations in child wellness, new report finds

Parents and children protest the opening of schools Sept. 14 after a coronavirus outbreak in Brooklyn. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
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The United States ranks near the bottom of dozens of advanced nations in terms of the well-being of its children, according to a report with data from before the coronavirus epidemic.

The rankings were published by the United Nations Children’s Fund, known as UNICEF, which show that of 38 advanced countries for which data was compiled in a range of wellness markers, the United States was No. 36. (See ranking chart and full report below).

The Netherlands, Denmark and Norway topped the list, which takes into account data on the mental and physical health of children as well as their skills as measured by international exams. Mental well-being includes both life satisfaction as well as suicide rates; physical health includes rates of overweight and obesity as well as child mortality, and skills focuses both on proficiency in reading and mathematics as well as social skills.

But the report noted that in many of the advanced nations on the list, children are not doing well; in fact, in nearly half, more than 1 in 5 children live in poverty. Of 41 nations ranked on child poverty, the United States was fourth from the bottom.

In 11 of 41 countries, at least 5 percent of households do not have safely managed water, and high levels of air pollution still threaten the physical and mental health of children, who suffer the greatest harms.

Even before the covid-19 crisis, which presents new threats to child well-being, the report said the daily lives of millions of children in the world’s richest nations fell far short of what anyone would call a good childhood.

“They suffered stress, anxiety and depression, lagged behind their peers at school, and were physically unwell,” it says. “Living in a wealthy country did not bring them happiness. Nor did it guarantee them better health or education

For the new rankings, data was analyzed from 41 advanced nations (though because of gaps in information, only 38 were ranked on the list below), and a broader view of child well-being was taken than in the past. Social skills — such as whether a child can easily make friends — were given equal weight to academic skills.

Though there were limitations on the availability of some data in some countries, the report makes clears all of them can do more to improve outcomes for children and offers recommendations. They include:

  1. Taking new and decisive action to reduce income inequality and poverty, and ensuring all children have access to the resources they need.
  2. Improving access to affordable and high-quality early-years child care for all children.
  3. Improving mental health services for children and adolescents.
  4. Implementing and expanding family-friendly policies related to the workplace.
  5. Reducing the stubbornly high levels of air pollution, among a range of measures to protect the natural environment.
  6. Strengthening efforts to protect children from preventable diseases, including reversing recent falls in many countries in measles immunization.

Here are the rankings, with 38 of the of the 41 analyzed countries (Turkey, Israel and Mexico are not included on this list because of data gaps).

Here’s the full report: