Britain and America worst environments for children of any of the Top 20 rich countries

The only rich country that treats its children worse than the USA is Britain, according to a recent Unicef report [1.5Mb pdf]. OECD and WHO studies contributed to the results which show the direction to go in is clearly the European one as the Netherlands came first, and Denmark and other Scandinavian countries were in the Top 5. A summary can be found on the BBC’s Newsnight webpages.

I’ve had a read through the report, and while there are clearly areas which may have been misinterpreted, there seems no doubt that in broad terms the report’s findings should be listened to. It is clear the Anglo-American model of life is not as helpful to our children, and ultimately to our adult societies, as we would like to think.

OK, we score higher for affluence, but is money happiness? Or are there other factors that affect wellbeing? What areas did the study cover? I’d like to comment on a few striking points.

Health and Safety
One area that was considered important was the level of infant mortality. High levels here indicate poverty. Poverty of healthcare provision, and poverty in being able to provide a good nutritional base to build good health on. The UK did rather better than the US with an above average 5.3 deaths per 100,000. The US had, for the richest country in the world, a rather embarrassing 7.0 infant deaths per 100,000 – putting it on a par with the ex-Communist states of Poland and Hungary, and well below Portugal and Greece.

Another “Health and Safety” indicator, the percentage of births below 2.5 Kg is, I believe, less reliable as an indicator because different genetics produce populations of higher or lower overall size and weight. Britain has a high proportion of Asians living in the country, and they have been shown by the WHO to have lighter average body weights than Europeans. This is supported in the statistics in which the Japanese show the highest percentage of low birth weight children (9.0%) which conflicts with their excellent figures for infant mortality with a very low 3.0 deaths per 100,000.

However, the death rate for under 19s is interesting, with both the US and New Zealand, which both have strong gang cultures in some areas, and an underclass with little hope. The Kiwis lose 23.1 of their under 19s per 100,000 to accidents and injuries; the US figure is almost identical at 22.9 per 100,000. These two countries have the highest rates in the group. The UK, with practically no guns at all (not even for policemen) has a figure of just 8.4 deaths under 19 per 100,000 – 2nd in the group. It seems the Anglo-Saxon partnership is not always so close.

Peer and Family Relationships, Work
Eating together as a family is something most people would accept is a desirable thing for children. The UK and the US are almost identical here, with figures of 66.7% and 65.7%. The average though is 79.4%, while the countries with the highest scores – France, Italy and the Netherlands score over 90.0%. Perhaps parents in these countries commute shorter distances, work fewer hours, place their families above their work and wealth.

Considering the UK Government’s excellent Working Tax Credits scheme makes it much easier for parents to take low paid work and still make a decent living, it is surprising that the UK has so many families without any working parent. This may be related to the high number of single parent families in the UK – the figures show that the UK has more single parent families than any other OECD country but one, with 16.9% of children living this way. Worst figure though is the one in five children in the US living in a single parent family, far higher than the average of one in eight.

This pattern of fractured family life can also be seen in the high proportion of children in both the US and the UK living in step-families. Again, both the US and the UK are at the bottom of the league here, with 16.0% and 14.5% respectively, almost double the average figure of 8.3%. The best countries here are Greece (1.2%), Italy (2.2%), and Poland (2.4%).

Despite the high number of single families in the US, fewer of them were jobless. Whether this is a sign of the enterprise culture, or generally poor social welfare provision is a good question. The best two countries were Japan, which has a predominantly “jobs for life” style of culture, and Switzerland which blends a heady mix of thoughtful socialism with pure capitalism.

The creation of a healthy society must depend on the creation of healthy adults, for it is collections of adults that make up a society. It is good therefore to see that children in both the US (67.9%) and the UK (60.5%) are about average (62.8%) in being able to ‘just talk’ to their parents several times per week. Champion here though is Hungary where over 90% of kids feel they get this level of support.

The secretive Swiss do pretty badly when it comes to talking with parents with a score of just 48.6%, which may explain why they score highest with 81.4% on having a kind and helpful peer group: they need one as their parents don’t seem to provide this support very well. But we should worry about the environment the US and UK kids have to deal with in their peer groups.

Barely half of US kids thought their peer group were supportive, while in the UK only two out of five kids felt this. Reversing these numbers shows that kids in the US see every other kid their age as a threat, while in the UK 60% of a child’s peer group are viewed negatively. That cannot be a positive sign for the future, unless we see a dog eat dog world as our inescapable destiny.

Behaviours and Risks
This covers a wide range, so I’ll narrow it down a bit.

Most shocking of all are the Adolescent birth rate figures showing births per 1,000 women for 15 to 19 year olds. The US has a staggeringly high number of 46/1,000 – more than 50% higher than the next nearest country, New Zealand. You’ll remember both these countries also had high adolescent death rates through accident and injury: another sign of gang culture? Certainly a sign of bad environments for children to be growing up in.

Before anyone from the UK starts feeling smug here, their figures of 28/1,000 puts them third from bottom which is well above the average of 16/1,000. Perhaps the UK would have done worse if it didn’t have a good set of birth control policies in place to stop the young from having totally ruined lives. The American ideas in these areas do not seem to be working. Perhaps they should have a more relaxed attitude to sex? Two of the three countries with the lowest rates here, Switzerland and Denmark, do indeed not treat sex as “dirty” in the same way as the Anglo-Americans do, and have a much lower problem as a result with figures of just 5/1,000 and 8/1,000.

Getting drunk seems to be a particular problem for kids in the UK, with a massive 30.8% of 11, 13 and 15 years olds reporting having been drunk at least twice. Too many alcopops? Or not enough time spent eating with their family and enjoying a glass of wine in moderation to enhance the meal, not as a way to release the tension of being at war with their peer group and not getting enough parental support either, perhaps? The average figure here is 15.4%, while the best Nations are France (8.0%) and Italy (9.7%) which both score highly on the family eating together, and the US where alcohol is more strictly controlled.

Obesity is a growing problem in rich nations. Our kids suffer too, are we stuffing them too full of the wrong kinds of foods out of our laziness, lack of time, or from ‘over-parenting” compensatory behaviour for our not being around them as much as we would like?

The Unicef study used Body Mass Index as their guide, which the US government describes as

Body Mass Index (BMI) is a number calculated from a child’s weight and height. BMI is a reliable indicator of body fatness for most children and teens. BMI does not measure body fat directly, but research has shown that BMI correlates to direct measures of body fat, such as underwater weighing and dual energy x-ray absorptiometry (DXA).1 BMI can be considered an alternative for direct measures of body fat. Additionally, BMI is an inexpensive and easy-to-perform method of screening for weight categories that may lead to health problems.

For children and teens, BMI is age- and sex-specific and is often referred to as BMI-for-age.

Here’s a chart for you to put the scores in perspective:

BMI for Age

The worst of all the OECD nations has a score just about double the average BMI with a figure of 25.1. Yes, you guessed it, that accolade goes to the US. Next worst country was Canada, and as they both share a number of foodstuffs perhaps the adage “you are what you eat” holds true here.

The countries with the least number of overweight kids are Poland with an average BMI of 7.1, the Netherlands with 7.6, and Switzerland with 8.5. The Guiness Book of Records has The Netherlands down as the country with the world’s tallest people, on average, so maybe they cover their weight well. Switzerland too has some tall thin people, and Poland’s figures may have more to do with their relatively undeveloped Fast Food industry. Certainly Polish workers I have seen in supermarkets in the UK are rather more slender than their British hosts whose kids average a BMI of 15.8, which is only a little above the group average.

Worried about your Body Mass Indicator? Check out this BMI calculator from Diabetes.co.uk. They also have some useful info about what it means. But let’s get back to kids, and look at our final area

Subjective well-being
When asked if they felt lonely, it might not surprise you that the leaders in this were the Japanese and the Icelanders. But the number of Japanese feeling lonely is three times as high as the Icelanders at a staggering 30.8%! Perhaps this is a reflection of the constant examination and pressure of doing well in order to capture that oh so important job for life we talked of before – at the cost of their childhood friends, perhaps? The Icelanders probably are just lonely – it is an island after all. There were no figures for how Americans felt, but only 5.4% of British kids said they felt lonely.

Clearly the Brits and Americans need to study this survey well, because it paints a poor picture of how their future societies will develop. The US needs to invest in its underclass and look for a more equitable society in which the gangs will not be the only place some kids can turn. The UK needs to look at helping kids help each other more, and kill off the drinking culture by removing the stress of competing with each other.

And maybe we need to realise that the Anglo-American model is not the only one in town, and that maybe the Europeans have something we should emulate more and despise less. After all, as the losers of two World Wars, they probably realised their societies needed to change, and so changed them while the arrogant “winners” went their own way.

It’s time for change. Don’t our kids deserve it?


6 comments on “Britain and America worst environments for children of any of the Top 20 rich countries

  1. With regard to infant mortality rate, as I understand it, the United States actually calculates that differently than most of the world. A premature baby that dies soon after birth in the United States is considered an infant death. In other countries, it is considered a fetal death and thus not calculated in the infant mortality rate. I think this skewed statistic is used all too often to bash the United States. The truth about socialized healthcare is that it sucks.


  2. Thanks for your interesting comment Arem. You do sound rather scared of the unknown though – have you ever lived as a civilian outside of your home country and actually experienced the things you are criticisng? The report was compiled by people from within all the countries it studied and covered 39 different sectors, not just the one you highlight.

    Far from being designed to “bash the US” the report is no more than a kind of mid term exam, letting us know how things are going so we can see where changes need to be made. Having had a look at your website I can guess that at your age, you may not like exams much either!

    I’m interested to learn what exactly you think “socialized healthcare” really is though, and what system you think is better and why.

  3. Brilliant post, many things have been discussed which i could not really able to cover in mine on same issue. I learned much from your post. Please keep visting my blog and give your feedback. It makes us much to learn. Thank you for your contribution (as your comment).

  4. Thanks for your appreciation saa, I think I spent around 15 hours or more researching and writing my post, but it’s a big area that deserves a lot of consideration. Thankfully my background in many of the areas the report covers, including the analysis of statistics, helped me a lot. I actually found it quite interesting.

  5. Yeah, I’m not really too big on exams. 🙂

    I wasn’t saying you were bashing the US, just that people often use that statistic to do so. I actually have spent time short-term in several foreign countries. Luckily, I’ve never been sick or injured while there, so I wouldn’t know too much about foreign health care from personal experience. I would say “socialized medicine” is tax-funded universal healthcare and I think a more (but maybe not completely) free-market system will be better in the long run.


  6. Thanks for considering this question further, Arem. The problem with health care in general is that infection knows no financial boundaries. Any system which ignores the needs of the poorest members of society puts the health of the richest members of society at great risk. Being rich during Europe’s Black Death did not make you immune to the disease.

    However, the report was not looking at healthcare provision per se, but at health indicators as tools that can highlight a lack of care for children. Things such as the rate of miscarriage and the percentage of low birth weight births are good indicators of poverty; the number of deaths from accident or injuries is another indicator that children come into harms way more than they should – another lack of care.

    What the report was saying was not that social healthcare provision was a must, just that some countries seem to value their children’s lives more highly than do others. Presumably political dogma is to blame in many counries for this – people just don’t want to consider there may be a better way.

    Switzerland has a very good private healthcare system paid for by compulsory private health insurance and a small payment from each patient per treatment. Everyone is cared for, and the poor have state help in order to pay for it.

    I think that is better than a system where the rich get free healthcare even when they can afford to pay something toward it (eg the UK), and better too than a system in which healthcare costs represent a form of taxation on employers (US) and large swathes of the population have no healthcare cover at all: that’s a disgrace for the world’s richest economy. Perhaps there would be more resources available if medicines in the US cost the same as they do in much cheaper Canada. Without a prod from the government though, why should any change take place? Sometimes you need the representatives of the people to fight on the people’s behalf, and not for their corporate sponsors.

    I agree with you that a system where the state takes over the role of the money manager is seldom as good as a private one, but you have to accept that a private set up will take money out of healthcare in the form of profits.

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