United Nations The United States and Britain ranked as the worst places to be a child among 21 wealthy nations, according to a report by UNICEF released Wednesday. The Netherlands was the best, it said, followed by Sweden and Denmark.
UNICEF's Innocenti Research Centre in Italy ranked the countries in material well-being, health, education, relationships, behaviors and risks, and young people's sense of happiness.
The finding that the children in the richest countries are not necessarily the best-off surprised many, said Marta Santos Pais, the study director. The Czech Republic, for example, ranked above countries with a higher per capita income, such as Austria, France, U.S. and Britain, in part because of a more equal distribution of wealth and higher relative investment in education and public health.
Some of the wealthier countries' lower rankings were a result of less spending on social programs and "dog-eat-dog" competition in jobs that led to adults spending less time with their children and heightened alienation among peers, said one of the report's authors, Jonathan Bradshaw, at a televised news conference in London.
"The findings that we got today are a consequence of long-term underinvestment in children," said Bradshaw, who is a professor of social policy at York University in England.
The highest ranking for the United States was for education, where it placed 12th. But the U.S. and U.K. landed in the lowest third for five of the six categories measured.
The United States was at the bottom in health and safety, mostly because of its high rates of child mortality and accidental deaths. It was next to last in family and peer relationships and risk-taking behavior. The U.S. has the highest proportion of children living in single-family homes, which the study defined as an indicator for increased risk of poverty and poor health, though it "may seem unfair and insensitive," it said. The U.S. was close to the bottom of the scale for children who eat and talk frequently with their families.
Britain had the highest rate of children involved in activities that endangered their welfare: 31 percent of those studied said they had been drunk at least twice by the age of 15, and 38 percent had had sexual intercourse by that age. Canada had the highest rate of children who had smoked marijuana by age 15 - 40.4 percent. Japan ranked the worst on "subjective well being," with 30 percent of children agreeing with the statement, "I am lonely."
Children in the Netherlands, Spain and Greece said they were the happiest, and those in Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands spent the most time with their families and friends.
The authors acknowledge the study is "a work in progress in need of improved definitions and better data." But they say it is a first step in providing benchmarks for comparing countries and highlighting poor performance in otherwise rich nations.
"All countries have weaknesses to be addressed," Santos Pais said.