Last week, UNICEF released a report detailing the impact of the 2008 recession on child poverty in 41 of the world’s most affluent countries.
So how did the United States do?
In terms of change, not great—the United States ranked 27th out of 41 countries, with a 2 percent increase in child poverty.
The report measures changes in poverty by counting the current number of people with incomes below 60 percent of their country’s pre-crisis 2008 median income level (thus, using a relative measure of poverty). UNICEF’s metric has been critiqued for boosting poverty numbers, but it still tells a valuable story of how absolute child poverty has fallen or risen among the world’s industrialized countries.
But measuring percentage changes obscures a salient detail: the United States is very, very large.
For example, in Iceland, the total number of children living in poverty increased by 17,241 since 2008. That’s a 20.4 percent increase in child poverty—good for last place on UNICEF’s list.
By contrast, that 2 percent increase in the U.S. meant an additional 1.7 million children living in poverty. Put another way, the United States put 100 times more children below its poverty median than did last-place Iceland.
In fact, the United States, on its own, accounts for one-third of the new total increase of children in poverty, according to UNICEF.
Furthermore, even after Iceland’s massive post-recession increase, the island nation still has a smaller percentage of children in poverty than the United States—31.6 percent versus 32.2 percent, respectively.
To be clear, the huge proportionate increase of children in poverty in smaller countries like Iceland and Greece is not a trivial phenomenon, nor should it be overlooked. However, the United States, as the richest country in the world, as well as the ward of millions of children, has a moral obligation to put child poverty at the forefront of its policy agenda. After all, there are more poor children living in the state of New York than in all of Greece.
Unfortunately, we spend less than 0.4 percent of our GDP on child care and early education, putting us at 32nd out of 37 of our developed counterparts.
There is no excuse for the lack of a unified policy agenda in the United States for combating child poverty. Nearly every country in Europe provides some combination of subsidized child care, paid maternity leave, and cash transfers to support the cost of raising children. Some developing nations are even managing to outpace the United States. For example, Pakistan provides twelve weeks of paid maternity leave, while Brazil’s government gives mothers monthly cash benefits—neither of which is provided in the United States.
UNICEF’s report should serve as a much needed wake-up call for the United States to implement a child poverty agenda. The lives of millions of our youngest, and poorest, citizens are at stake.