Thursday, UNICEF released Fairness for Children: A League Table of Inequality in Child Well-being in Rich Countries (Innocenti Report Card 13). This comparative study looks at income inequality among households with children in the richest nations around the globe.
In the U.S., among households with children, there is a 58.9 percent gap between households at the median income level and those at the 10 percent level (those whose income is less than that of 90 percent of all households with children). Why is this measure important? Economists use it to show how far a country allows its poorest children to fall below children in families with an average income. In calculating it, all social programs that help to lessen the gap are taken into account.
Among the 41 richest countries ranked on this measure, the U.S. holds the disappointing 30th position. With a close grip on the medal stand, the Nordic countries of Norway, Iceland and Finland win Gold, Silver and Bronze respectively. Near the bottom, one of the three poorest performers, is our neighbor to the south, Mexico (possibly one reason the U.S. sees more immigrants from Mexico than Norway).
The irony of America having so many poor children despite being the richest country is not lost on those fighting poverty on the front lines. According to the U.S. Census Department, 23 percent of children live below the official poverty line. In 2012, the poverty line for a family of two adults and two children was $23,283. It is well known that this is unrealistically low. In fact, most social benefits are made available to families whose incomes fall anywhere below 200 percent of the official line. Using that measure, a full 45 percent of American children live in poverty.
Strangely, the answer is not more jobs. The American economy currently has a relatively low unemployment rate (5.0 percent, down from 7.9 percent at the end of 2012). The answer lies, at least partly, in better paying jobs. For the “typical” American family (two adults, two children), staying above the official poverty line requires one working adult to make $11.64 per hour and work 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year. With the resulting income, the family would still be eligible for government benefits.
Because its oil fields were booming in 2012 and paying good wages, North Dakota had the lowest child poverty rate in the nation (13 percent). Other states were not as lucky, Mississippi being the least fortunate, with a child poverty rate in excess of 35 percent.
Millions of American children living in poverty is a bare statistic; every single child living in poverty is a tragedy playing out each day. Millions of tragic tales bode ill for the future of a great country now falling behind on the global stage.