Learning First Alliance

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Children's Welfare: OECD Gives Us Half the Story

vonzastrowc's picture

OECD reports always leave me wanting more. The most recent report on child well being in industrialized countries is no exception. I want more information, better context, greater clarity. The report just seems to gloss over too many factors that affect children’s welfare.

One finding does seem abundantly clear: The United States fares poorly on many measures of child well-being. Our child poverty rate is over 20 percent, almost double the OECD average. We’re in the basement on children’s health and safety: twenty-fourth out of 30 OECD countries. And we do just as poorly in educational well-being. Our achievement gaps are much larger than in most other OECD countries. American students are also more likely than their OECD peers to lack important resources like textbooks, computers, or even a quiet place to study.

The report also finds that U.S. spending on children is higher than the OECD average. (Cue outrage over big spending on social programs....) But the OECD analysis leaves so much out of account that this conclusion is hard to support.

Take, for example, health care spending. The OECD admits leaving it out of the analysis: “Although the analysis does not include public spending on health, many of the indicators of child well-being are related to health.” Oh.... That's kind of a big deal.

In the U.S., poor children receive much worse health care than other children do, and their health suffers as a result.  So does their academic success. In many countries that best us in OECD rankings, all children receive health care as a matter of course.

And there's more. Mothers and even fathers in many other developed countries get months of paid leave after the birth of a child. They get much more time off to spend with families. And many receive most of their salaries for a year or more after they are laid off. That might all sound a bit like “socialism” (gasp), but could it also influence children’s well-being?

Is that level of support for families feasible in the United States? I'll stay out of that particular debate for now.

But we should never forget that poverty is expensive. In Finland, where few children are poor, poverty doesn't carry the price tag it does here. Overwhelming need quickly swallows social spending, especially when most of it goes to crisis management rather than prevention. On that point, the OECD report does offer some perspective. The U.S. falls behind most OECD countries in the share of total spending it devotes to children younger than 5. The study's authors argue that the U.S. should spend more on younger, disadvantaged children.

Overall, the OECD report would be more helpful if it examined the many complex factors that affect children's wellfare. Easier said than done, I know. We still have much work to do in better coordinating our all our services to children, both within and beyond schools. At present the OECD report offers rather limited guidance on how to do so.