Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The USA is near the bottom

The United States ranked second to worst among 26 of the world's richest countries, with 21.9% of its children living in poverty. Only Mexico had a worse rate, according to the new report Child Poverty in Rich Countries 2005, Report Card No. 6 from the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre.

But there is a bit of good news: in the 1990s, the USA’s child poverty rate fell by 2.4%. That’s the second best improvement, after the United Kingdom’s 3.1% decline.

By far the most important factor was the increase in earnings of mothers. The average annual earnings of mothers rose by almost 30 percent over the 1990s, and by 36 percent for those in the lowest income group.

The UNICEF Report measures child poverty relative to the economy -- a child is considered in poverty if his or her family income falls at or below 50 percent of the median income for the country. This differs from the U.S. measurement of poverty, which is based on a static measure of income unrelated to societal norms.

The study says:

"Protecting children from the sharpest edges of poverty during their years of growth and formation is both the mark of a civilized society and a means of addressing some of the evident problems that affect the quality of life in the economically developed nations."

The official US poverty line here dates back to judgments made in the 1960s. Using survey data from 1955, the poverty threshold was set at three times the costs of a nutritionally adequate diet (or "thrifty food budget as it was then called). Since then, it’s been adjusted only for inflation.

Every child should have the chance to be all that he or she can be. The opportunities of life should not be determined by the circumstances of birth. (Does this sound anything like No Child Left Behind?) But the evidence of both statistics and everyday experience indicates that those who grow up in poverty are at a marked and measurable disadvantage.

There’s a close correlation between growing up in poverty and the likelihood of educational under-achievement, poor health, teenage pregnancy, substance abuse, criminal and anti-social behavior, low pay, unemployment and long-term welfare dependence.

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