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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Basics: U.S. One of Worst Rich Countries for Child Poverty

Pat Garofolo of Think Progress reports on new data published by UNICEF on child poverty among rich countries. The study covered all 27 European Union members, plus Australia, Canada, Iceland, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, and the United States. Of the 35 countries studied, the U.S. ranks second-worst in the percentage of children living in relative poverty (half of median GDP per capita; see further below), with 23.1% below this poverty level, above only Romania at 25.5%. Romania is the second poorest member of the EU and not an OECD member country. The table below sums up the results (most data are for 2009):

Source: UNICEF via Think Progress

As the report says:
Previous reports in this series have shown that failure to protect children from poverty is one of the most costly mistakes a society can make....The economic argument, in anything but the shortest term, is therefore heavily on the side of protecting children from poverty. Even more important is the argument in principle. Because children have only one opportunity to develop normally in mind and body, the commitment to protection from poverty must be upheld in good times and in bad. A society that fails to maintain that commitment, even in difficult economic times, is a society that is failing its most vulnerable citizens and storing up intractable social and economic problems for the years immediately ahead.
Some people object to the use of this relative poverty measure, which is the OECD standard. Certainly, for the poorer EU Member States, their absolute levels of child deprivation are worse than that in the U.S. because their income per capita is so much lower. For example, Romania's GDP per capita is $12,300 at purchasing power parity (PPP) compared to $48,100 for the United States. The UNICEF report actually has an absolute measure of child deprivation based on lack of access to two or more of 14 resources it estimates are essential for children in an industrialized society (including everything from three meals a day to a quiet place to do homework to an Internet connection). 72.6% of Romania's children and 56.6% of Bulgaria's are deprived by this standard, but only four more EU members exceed 20% by this measure. (Comparable data were not available for the U.S.)

But we in America should not get too excited by this fact. If we compare poverty across the major OECD economies, we find that the rankings change very little whether we use the OECD's relative measure or an absolute measure. We know this because for a time the UN Development Programme's Human Development Report listed data for an absolute poverty threshold of $11/day in 1994-5, which comes to $16,060 per year for four people, little different than the Census Bureau's figure of $15,569 for a family of four in 1995. So, measuring major European economies plus Australia and Canada, which generally have a lower GDP per capita at PPP than the U.S. does, against the U.S. poverty line, what do we find? From the 2006 Human Development Report, , page 295, here are all the "high human development" countries with poverty data using both the relative and absolute scales (listed in order of their Human Development Index score):

Country          50% of Median Income Rate          $11 a Day Poverty Rate
                                   1994-2002                                1994-95

Norway                          6.4%                                         4.3%
Australia                        14.3%                                       17.6%
Sweden                           6.5%                                         6.3%
Canada                          11.4%                                         7.4%
United States                  17.0%                                      13.6%
Netherlands                      7.3%                                        7.1%
Finland                             5.4%                                         4.8%
Luxembourg                     6.0%                                         0.3%
France                             8.0%                                         9.9%
United Kingdom             12.4%                                       15.7%
Germany                          8.3%                                         7.3%

As we can see, the shift to the absolute rate improves the U.S. rank from only 11th (last) to 9th. As long as restrict ourselves to the richest of rich countries, it makes little difference whether we use a relative or absolute measure of poverty. Either way, the U.S. does very poorly. And because it does poorly in overall poverty, it does poorly in child poverty as well.

The U.S., with high levels of child poverty, is therefore setting itself up for permanently lower economic productivity, higher costs in social services and incarceration, and so forth. This is a powerful argument against cuts to safety net programs and to education. The only question is whether we can overcome the forces currently promoting such policies.

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