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Rich countries, including Canada, letting poorest children fall behind, says new UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre Report

2010-12-01

Toronto, ON, December 2, 2010 - A landmark report by the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, Report Card 9: The Children Left Behind, has found that children in many rich nations suffer greater inequality than children in other industrialized nations. Canada performs at a mediocre level overall, but lags far behind in equality of children's material well-being which includes family income and other basic resources and conditions necessary for child development - placing 17th of 24 countries.

Report Card 9: The Children Left Behind ranks, for the first time, 24 OECD countries in terms of equality in children's health, education and material well-being. The report looks at a particular aspect of disparity – bottom-end inequality – and asks how far behind affluent nations allow their most disadvantaged children to fall.

The approach of The Children Left Behind is to measure the gap between the average child (what a country may consider 'normal') and the child near the bottom. As such, the report examines how far children are falling behind in three dimensions of their lives - material well-being, educational achievement and physical health – and means we can measure and compare, for the first time, the differences in performance both within and between countries. (The full list of countries at bottom)

Greece, Italy and the United States, for example, are seen to be allowing their most vulnerable children to fall much further behind than countries like Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Switzerland. The report argues that the consequences of 'falling behind' are enormous for children, as they are for the economy and societies. Canada's performance is in the middle of the pack.

"With stronger public policy, Canada can rise above its mediocre performance and leave no child behind," says Marv Bernstein, Chief Advisor, Advocacy, UNICEF Canada. "The level of family income is a major influence on all aspects of child well-being. Canada should address income inequality by promoting fairly paid and highly skilled employment and through sufficient and fairly distributed benefits and taxation. We also need to ensure health, education and other services reduce, rather than widen, disadvantage among our children."

The report also finds that:

  1. Switzerland has the least inequality in material well-being, closely followed by Iceland and the Netherlands. The highest relative gaps are reported in Slovakia, the United States and Hungary. Canada, however, has a wide equality gap in this dimension of child material well-being, with greater family income disparity than most OECD countries, ranking 17th of 24 nations.
  2. Canada ranks near the top among the countries with the greatest equality in children's educational achievement overall, placing third. Inequality in children's educational achievement outcomes (in reading, math and science literacy) is lowest in Finland, followed by Ireland and Canada. It is highest in Belgium, France and Austria.
  3. The lowest levels of inequality for health are registered in the Netherlands, followed by Norway and Portugal, while the widest gaps are found in Hungary, Italy and the United States. In Canada, the degree of inequality in child health is average, or 9th among 24 OECD nations.

According to Bernstein, Canada can achieve greater equality with some practical and affordable steps that would make a real and lasting difference for children: establish a national Children's Commissioner; report regularly on the state of children; provide Canadians a clear account of public expenditures on children with a children's budget; set a national child poverty reduction strategy; close the gap between  Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children; and apply a Child Impact Assessment to policy decisions affecting children.

The report also notes that the heaviest costs are paid by the individual child. But the long list of problems also translates into significant costs for society as a whole. Unnecessary bottom-end inequality prepares a bill, which is quickly presented to taxpayers in the form of increased strain on health and hospital services, on remedial schooling, on welfare, and on the justice system.

The Children Left Behind suggests a practical response by showing that some countries are much better at limiting inequality for their children than others.  At the same time, the report shows a number of examples where countries who rank best in median levels of achievement also rank best in reducing inequality. It is, therefore, argued that greater equality can be achieved without sacrificing efficiency and economic performance.

Countries measured and compared in Report Card 9 'The Children Left Behind': Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Seven (7) other OECD countries - Australia, Chile, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Republic of Korea and Turkey – are also included in the Report, but are not given a group ranking as they did not have enough data for at least one of the three dimensions measured.

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For further information:

Stefanie Carmichael, Communications Specialist, (416) 482-6552 ext. 8866; Cell: (647) 500-4230, scarmichael@unicef.ca.
Tiffany Baggetta, Director, Communications and Brand, (416) 482-6552 ext. 8892; Cell: (647) 308-4806, tbaggetta@unicef.ca.