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Why Are Our Kids Faring So Poorly?

Photograph by Getty Images

What is it about being a kid in America that's so bad? Or, put a different way: Why is life better for kids in at least 25 other rich nations, including Slovenia, Poland, and economically imploding countries like Greece and Spain? What is it about the U.S. that the average well-being of children here is so much worse off than in most European countries?

A recent report on child well-being from the United Nations' UNICEF agency ranked the U.S. among the bottom four of 29 rich countries in the categories of material well-being, health, housing and environment, education, and behaviors and risks. Of those categories, only Romania ranked consistently lower than the U.S.

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The highest rankings for the U.S.—in the areas of behaviors and risks, with the other being housing and environment—placed at 23rd out of the 29 countries, still well in the bottom third. In education, where U.S. policymakers have put so much focus and money, only Greece and Romania ranked lower. Spain ranked just above.

The Netherlands ranked first in overall child well-being, and most of the Scandinavian countries fell in line after that. Canada ranked 17th overall, its No. 27 ranking for health and safety dragging down that country's mid-list rankings in all the other areas.

Analysis of the report concluded that U.S. policies—not GDP, not immigration, not child poverty—more than anything else have kept the nation's child well-being from improving year after year in the U.N. rankings. Researchers said these international rankings show how "it is international comparison that can show what is achievable in the real world," and they highlight strengths and weaknesses in individual countries, and "that child well-being is policy-susceptible."

In other words, change is possible.

Canada earns the distinction of most pot-smokers.

A section of the report surveyed kids themselves on overall well-being and, apparently, kids in the U.S. are aware of the country's shortcomings. American kids ranked themselves seventh from the bottom. Interesting twist? Canadians ranked themselves just below the U.S.—as in kids there are even less satisfied.

The overall conclusions are based on some pretty specific data, and digging through it gets interesting. For example, the U.S. is at the very bottom in terms of teen obesity—we have the highest rate by far of any of the countries in the rankings. But it's not all junk food and soda, apparently. Because the U.S. ranks No. 4 in percent of children who eat fruit every day.

The U.S. also has fewer 11-, 13- and 15-year-olds who smoke a cigarette daily, ranking No. 4 in that category, too. (Put down the Marlboros, Latvia!) And yet the U.S. is fifth from the bottom in terms of 11-, 13- and 15-year-olds who get high. (Canada earns the distinction of most pot-smokers.)

The U.S. has the fewest of all the countries' 11-, 13- and 15-year-olds who consume alcohol. Lithuania? Booze is kind of a problem for kids there—they are at the very bottom.

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A number of rich countries are noticeably absent from the list. Eleven others—Australia, Bulgaria, Chile, Cyprus, Israel, Japan, Malta, Mexico, New Zealand, Turkey and South Korea— lacked enough data and could not be brought in to the rankings.

So what good is this report? Is it supposed to shame countries into making changes? Sure, that's part of it. But UNICEF officials also say that it's useful to show that small changes to a country can have a dramatic effect on its children. In the previous report, Spain ranked No. 5 from the top, but recent economic turmoil and austerity cuts there pushed the country almost into the bottom third of the list.

Strong child-first policies and regulations put the otherwise dismal U.S. rankings into its highest showing. Strict drinking ages and anti-smoking policies buoyed its behaviors and health rankings.

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