The latest Innocenti Report Card raises concerns about the impact of inequality on the most disadvantaged children in high income countries. In 19 out of 41 countries studied, the poorest 10 per cent of children live in households that have less than half the income of the median.
In Japan and the United States the poorest children live in homes that have about 40 per cent of the median income.
Report Card 13, Fairness for Children: A league table of inequality in child well-being in rich countries, ranks 41 countries in the OECD and the European Union according to how far the bottom 10% of children fall below their peers in the middle of the distribution: ‘bottom-end inequality.’
The report measures bottom-end inequality of income, educational achievement, children’s self-reported health and life satisfaction, to create a full portrait of how far children at the bottom are being allowed to fall behind their peers.
“As concern with high levels of inequality rises on the global policy agenda, our understanding of the long term impacts of inequality is also growing: what happens to children has life-long and even intergenerational consequences” said Dr. Sarah Cook, Director of the UNICEF Office of Research - Innocenti. “Any serious efforts to reduce inequality must place priority on children’s well-being today and ensure that all children are given opportunities to achieve their potential.”
According to the report, between 2006 and 2012 inequality in reading scores narrowed in the majority of countries, with the exception of Finland and Sweden which saw a widening gap in reading scores at the same time that median test scores fell. The largest improvements in reading achievement were made in Chile, the Czech Republic, Germany Mexico and Belgium.
Inequality in children’s self-reported health symptoms increased in the majority of countries. More than half of children in Turkey and around a third of children in Bulgaria, France, Israel, Malta and Romania report one or more symptoms of ill-health a day.
Despite this, many countries showed decreasing inequality in physical activity and unhealthy eating due to faster improvements among those at the bottom.
Based on children’s ranking of their life satisfaction on a scale of 1 – 10, the median score across all countries is 8. But children at the lower end of the distribution fall far behind their peers. One in 20 children rated rating life satisfaction as 4 or less out of 10.
Combining all the measures of inequality, Denmark ranks at the top of the distribution. It has comparatively low bottom-end inequality in each of the four domains. Israel and Turkey rank at the bottom of the overall league table. Some of the richest countries in the world, however, fall in the bottom third of the overall league table including Canada, France, Belgium and Italy.
Report Card 13 concludes with an analysis of the impact of family background on inequality. The findings are clear: lower socio-economic status is associated with poor educational achievement and low levels of physical activity, healthy eating and life satisfaction.
“Understanding the differences among countries in how far the most disadvantaged children fall behind their average peers can provide some insight into the conditions or interventions that may help to reduce the gaps,” Sarah Cook said. “The league tables provide a clear reminder that the well-being of children in any country is not an unavoidable outcome of family circumstances or of the level of economic development but can be shaped by policy choices.”
Other significant findings:
- Relative income gaps and levels of poverty are closely related: higher levels of poverty tend to be found in countries with wider income gaps and lower poverty where there are narrower income gaps.
- Two higher income countries, Belgium and France, are found at the bottom of the education league table, with very large achievement gaps.
- Four countries – Estonia, Ireland, Latvia and Poland – combine lower educational achievement inequality with fewer children falling below minimum proficiency standards.
- Inequality gaps in physical activity and in unhealthy eating decreased in the majority of countries.
- At ages 13 and 15 girls are more likely than boys in all countries to have fallen behind in self-reported measures of life satisfaction.