Can governments do more to protect their most vulnerable children?

©UNICEF IRC / 2010 - Report Card 9 - The Children Left Behind

by Gordon Alexander, Director UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre

These days, each day, almost every hour, markets are measuring the size of government deficits and assessing their abilities to pay back debt. Where a gap is seen or perceived, whole societies have been forced to ply to their will as to what is needed in austerity measures. As debates over such measures rage, it is worth pausing to consider another measure, which while not producing headlines with the same frequency as our beleaguered financial system, is no less important to the affairs of the world's rich countries.

A report from the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, which uses a new method for measuring disadvantage among children, has found that there are a small group of rich countries who are doing a much better job than their counterparts at preventing their poorest children from being 'left behind'. The report argues that there are profound and powerful implications to children, society and for the economy.

The report, The Children Left Behind, attempts to grasp the extent of inequality in key dimensions of child well-being for 24 OECD countries, most of them European. It does so by focusing on a particular aspect of disparity - 'bottom-end' inequality. The report examines not the top versus bottom, but the gap between children at the bottom of the distribution with those in the middle (the middle representing what a country accepts as 'normal'). Three dimensions of child well-being are measured: education, health, and material well-being. In each case, the question asked is, 'how far behind are rich nations allowing their most disadvantaged children to fall'?

UNICEF's findings will surprise some and worry others. The United Kingdom, Belgium, Spain, and Italy for example, are seen to be allowing their children to fall much further behind than countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland and Ireland.

Scattered between the highs and lows are mixed results. Portugal comes near the top for reducing inequality in health for its children, 12 places above France. Switzerland ranks best in reducing material inequality for its children, 14 places above similarly sized Belgium. Austria is one of the poorest performers in the measure of education equality, while Ireland is at the top.

Is there any hope, in today's harsh economic times, that governments will do more to protect their most vulnerable children? Few would deny that there is a strong case in principle for doing everything possible to protect the most vulnerable. After all, the idea that inequality is justified as a reflection of differences in merit cannot be applied to children. But the report argues that there is also a powerful practical argument to protect. Drawing on studies from across the OECD, the report sets out the likely consequences of children 'falling too far behind'. These include a greater risk of poorer health and nutrition, more frequent visits to health services and hospitals, impaired cognitive development, educational under-achievement, reduced productivity and adult earnings, and a greater likelihood of teenage pregnancy and of alcohol and drug dependence. All major costs to society as well to those individual children.

But there is good news too. The fact that some countries are doing better than others shows that the pattern of inequality can be broken, or at least kept within bounds. And that when exclusion is identified early, action can be taken to prevent such gaps becoming entrenched. This variation between countries revealed in the report offers a realistic goal for improvement. After all, the 24 countries being compared are all highly developed nations with similar resources and abilities to limit child poverty. This is because the report does not measure national performance against an abstract goal, but against a standard of what has been already been achieved elsewhere by countries of similar development status. Finally, the report shows a number of examples where countries who rank best in median levels of achievement, also rank best in reducing inequality. It is, therefore, argued that greater equity can be achieved without sacrificing efficiency and economic performance.

With this in mind, Innocenti's The Children Left Behind lays down a challenge to those rich countries that are allowing their most disadvantaged children to fall much further behind than is necessary. A challenge to find solutions that work in their settings, and which narrow that gap. If this challenge is not met then, the report says, "a fundamental unfairness will continue to shame our pretensions to equality of opportunity - and our societies will continue to pay the price".

And so, while this may not be the best of times to call for increased spending on social programs for families, the report urges governments to think carefully before they cut - think explicitly of the children who will be left behind. And keep measuring.

Download the report