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UNICEF Report: Class Divide Endangers Children in Rich Countries, Including US

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Report Card 14,” released June 15 by the United Nations’ Children’s Fund (UNICEF), shows that many children in well-resourced nations are developing poorly and are vulnerable. The document is the latest in a series of periodic reports issued by UNICEF’s Office of Research on the performances of economically advanced countries in securing the rights of children. The current title is: “Building the Future: Children and the Sustainable Development Goals in Rich Countries,”

UNICEF established its research arm in 1988 in order “to help facilitate full implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.” The United States is the only nation in the world that hasn’t ratified the Convention, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989.

This recent UNICEF survey ranks the performance of 41 countries belonging to the European Union, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or both. The United States shows up near or at the bottom among rankings in various categories.

Report Card 14 is of interest here for the documentation it provides of disadvantage weighing on children of working-class and marginalized families living in capitalist societies.

The report’s author, Chris Brazier, utilized nine of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) elaborated by the United Nations in 2015, particularly those “with most direct relevance to the well-being of children in high-income settings [and to] income and wealth, health and educational opportunity.” He indicates that the SDGs generally “represent an ambitious effort to set a global agenda for development that is both equitable and sustainable, in social, economic and environmental terms.” They bring attention to “the consequences of wealth accumulation by the richest.”

SGDs are one set of tools used in UNICEF’s Report Card for assessing whether or not wealthy societies are meeting the needs of children. The other is a conglomeration of dozens of “indicators” of their success or not in meeting particular SDGs. The indicators utilize data from 2014 and 2015.

The SDGs and indicators appearing here are those selected specifically for pointing to outcomes for children that vary according to their social class. In fact, Report Card 14 presents information covering a wide range of childhood experience, not all of it having to do with class differences. As a result, many of the SDGs and indicators found in the Report Card aren’t mentioned here.

One method for presenting the survey’s results was to evaluate the progress of individual countries in terms of specific SDGs and to do so through an assigned rating reflecting the combined findings from relevant indicators. Those results are displayed in a listing that extends both above and below the average country performance for the indicator. Here is what some of the performances look like:

The other way Report Card 14 displays its findings is by ranking performance of the countries as signaled by individual indicators, expressed as percentages or rates. Again, performances are recorded as ranking above or below average performances by the countries. What with data for an indicator not always being available, some rankings don’t include all 41 countries. Examples follow of countries ranked according to single indicators:

One indicator relating to “End Poverty” is “Relative [family] Income.” It’s the percentage of children 17 years of age or younger living in households with incomes less than 60 percent of their country’s median income. The average for all countries is 21 percent. Denmark is tops at 9.2 percent. The United States ranks in 35th place with a percentage of 29.4 percent.

Another such indicator is “Percentage of reduction in childhood poverty as the result of “social transfers.”  The country average is 37.5 percent, Finland’s 66 percent is the most favorable, and the United States is in 32nd place (of 37) with 18 percent. “Social transfers” include taxation for reducing inequalities and provision of benefits.

The indicator “Percentage of children 15 years old or younger living with a food – insecure family” relates to the “End Hunger” SDG.  The country average for this indicator is 12.7 percent; Japan, the most favorable, stands at 1.4 percent; and the United States ranks in 36th place with 19.6 percent.

The indicator designated as “Neonatal Mortality” relates to the SDG “Ensure Healthy Lives.” The neonatal mortality rate is the number of infants per 1000 births who die in their first 28 days. The country average is 2.8 deaths. Japan’s rate is the most favorable at 0.9 deaths. The United States lags in 32nd place (of 36) with 4.0 deaths.

One indicator for the “Reducing Inequality” SDG is the ratio of income share of the top 10 percent and bottom 40 percent of the population in income distribution. The country average is 1.17. Iceland surpasses at 0.70 percent. The United States places 35th with 1.64.

Another indicator for the same goal is: “the relative gap between the median income and that of the bottom 10 percent of households with children.” The country average is 51.2 percent. Iceland exceeds all at 34.2 percent. The United States places 30th with 58.9 percent.

One of the indicators for the SDG “Ensure Education” is revealing.  Its designation is: “percentage of children under 15 years of age achieving basic learning proficiency.” The country average performance is only 68.6 percent. Estonia is in first place with 83.1 percent, and the United States ranks in 26th place (out of 38) with 66.4 percent.

The indicator “Child murder rate” (age 0-19), associated with the SGD “Promote Peaceful and Inclusive Society,” also deserves a look. The country average is 0.65 child murders per 100,000 persons. No Maltese children were murdered in 2015 and in second – place Luxemburg’s rate was 0.01. The United States registered 2.6 murders, ranking 36th among 37 countries.

Commentary is in order. Report Card 14 says little about racial oppression of children, particularly in the United States.  Here are some facts.  Reflecting varying criteria, estimates of the poverty rate for all U. S. children range from 21 percent (according to kidscount.org) to 29.4 percent, as per Report Card 14. But 36 percent of African American children, 0 – 18 years of age, live in poverty. And, the infant mortality rate (number of infants dying in their first year, per 1000 live births) for all U. S. babies in 2015 was 5.9 – 25th place in the world; for African-American babies the figure was 11.4.

The UNICEF report’s most important conclusion for us is that a sizable portion of children in well-resourced nations are deprived, neglected, or endangered. They belong to the single social class of people who work or who are marginalized.

Evidence for their class identification lies in the documentation the Report Card provides of families being subjected to scanty income, hunger, violence, flimsy health care, and poor schooling for children. Affected children live in capitalist societies where profiteering and protecting the status quo come first. Their fate is no accident.

In theory the working class has a mission of anti-capitalistic struggle. Children, however, can’t engage very well. So who speaks and acts for them?

Adult family members and left-leaning political organizations are their proxy warriors. But these parties may have priorities far – removed from those of children. Importantly, children are not little adults; their task of personal development often requires repair measures applying to them as individuals. But any rescue effort has to encompass all endangered children, together. The need arises, therefore, for new thinking.

Preparation for political struggle ideally begins in childhood with education, good health, and emulation of any self-confidence, resilience, and optimism displayed by adult family members.  But under stressful conditions like those portrayed in this survey, adults may be distracted, fearful, out of money, isolated, and/or fixated on short-term survival. Incapacitation of children fits with the priorities of those in charge, as they plan their future.

The essential need now is for advocates for children to confront power-brokers and to lead. Maybe the time is right for parents and especially women, and women as mothers, to assert themselves. Children are with women, and women know the realities of children’s lives. They are used to defending their own rights and those of children. Together these rights make up a lion’s share of social and economic rights generally.

Maybe, after all, the U. S. anarchy of tasking individuals or squabbling over this or that single issue isn’t necessary. What if there were one political party offering a whole program of reform – including children’s rights – and an alternative to capitalist rule? Powerful social-democratic political parties – and strong labor movements – have long held forth in those European countries receiving high marks in Report Card 14. They may not have brought about basic change but they did force into existence reforms providing for people’s survival needs. Children were included.

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W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.

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