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UNICEF report card 11 on child well-being in rich countries


The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has recently published a report cardpdf providing a comparative overview of child well-being in 29 of the world’s most advanced economies. Using international data from 2009 and 2010, the report breaks down well-being into five dimensions, namely education, housing and environment, material well-being, health and safety, and behaviour and risks. The report card consists of three sections: a country ranking; children’s views on their own well-being; and changes in child well-being since the 2007 UNICEF report card on this same topic. Overall the data show improvements for most indicators of children’s well-being irrespective of per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP), with particularly strong gains for Central and Eastern European countries.

children playing outside, (c) IStock

The multiple facets of child well-being

The report card acknowledges that the moral imperative of promoting children’s well-being is widely recognised, partly since it impacts on a range of factors later on in life such as school achievement, earnings and employment, crime and antisocial behaviour, and healthcare costs, among others.  Proxy indicators are used to discuss changes over time for the five dimensions of child well-being. For instance, the ‘education’ aspect of well-being is measured by participation rates in early childhood education and further education (from the age of 15-19), the rate of young people aged 15-19 not in education, employment or training (NEET), and average PISA scores for reading, maths and science. In the first section of the report card, a summary ranking is provided, as well as a breakdown of specific proxies forming overall indicators for the five areas of child well-being mentioned above, and major findings for each of the proxies are also analysed. For instance, analysis of material well-being uses four indicators, including relative child poverty rates (the proportion of children living in households where the disposable income is less than 50% of the national median) and the child poverty gap (which assesses the depth of child poverty by quantifying the distance between the poverty line and the median income of those below this line). The data show that in about a quarter of the 29 countries studied, the child poverty gap is wider than 30%.

Changes in children’s well-being over the past decade in advanced economies

While it is not possible to compare directly the 2007 and 2013 report cards in their entirety due to changes in data sources. Therefore, comparative analysis presented in the 2013 report draws on common indicators between the 2013 report card and the 2007 report card (which drew on data from 2001 to 2003). Overall, and despite significant changes for some countries, the overall country ranking remains stable, and denotes improvements in most indicators of children’s well-being. Although adjustments in indicators do not permit direct comparisons to be made for child poverty specifically, certain indicators such as material deprivation appear to be on the decline, with Central and Eastern European states gaining on Western European countries. The gap between Eastern and Central Europe, and Western Europe also appears to be closing when it comes to child health (measured by infant mortality rates). Further education enrolment rates have gone up in 14 of the 21 countries for which data are available, but appears to have declined by about two percentage points in some Western European countries including France and the United Kingdom. Other indicators reveal progress in reducing the proportion of young people and children exposed to smoking, drinking, or fighting. By contrast, children’s subjective well-being offers a more nuanced picture, with half of the 21 countries for which data are available showing an increase in perceived well-being, while the other half record a fall in reported life satisfaction. The comparative section on trends over the past decade ends with an emphasis on the economic recession and its effects. It draws a comparison with nations experiencing recession in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and warns against setting childhood aside as a policy priority.