U.S. fares poorly in child welfare survey

Associated Press and Associated Press

PARIS – America 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 OECD, a Paris-based watchdog of industrialized 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 yesterday, ‘Doing Better for Children,’ marks the first time the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has reported on child well-being within its 30 member countries.

The U.S. 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 OECD survey showed.

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

‘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 U.S. is the fourth-worst in the OECD after Mexico, Turkey and Slovakia. American 15-year-olds rank seventh from the bottom on the OECD’s measure of average educational achievement. Child poverty rates in the U.S. are nearly double the OECD average, at 21.6 percent compared to 12.4 percent.

The rate of teen births in the U.S. 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 by telephone from the United States.

Some European countries have public preschools and day cares, 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 U.S.’

Among other OECD countries, France, Germany, Britain and Belgium spend more on their children than the U.S., 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 U.S., 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 percent, far above the OECD average of 20 percent and the 12 percent rate recorded in the U.S.