Research on inequality often loses sight of where children stand in relation to one another.
The new Innocenti Report Card Fairness for Children: A league table of inequality in child well-being in rich countries looks at differences between children at the bottom of the inequality ladder, and their peers in the middle, across 41 advanced economies. The report ranks countries according to how far they allow their most disadvantaged children to fall behind in income, educational achievement, self-reported health and life satisfaction. Denmark does best in the overall ranking, with consistently low inequality in four different domains, while Israel and Turkey come out as the most unequal.
Inequality tends to evolve over time. Report Card 13 places countries into separate groups based on the pathways behind these changes. For example, the study measures income inequality as the gap between the incomes of the 10th percentile and the median as a percentage of the median. Thus, bottom-end income inequality can increase for two different reasons:
- The median grows faster than the 10th percentile OR
- The 10th percentile shrinks faster than the median
Out of 37 rich countries for which trend data are available, 13 countries saw a substantial increase in the relative income gap among children under 18 between 2008 and 2013. In five of these countries, the median increased faster than the 10th percentile, which may have remained the same or even decreased – Canada, France, Israel, Slovakia and Sweden. The other eight countries experienced an increase in income inequality because both the median and the 10th percentile decreased, but the bottom of the distribution shrank faster. This group includes five southern European countries (Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal) and three eastern European countries (Estonia, Hungary and Slovenia). Only four countries managed to lift incomes of households with children both at the bottom and the middle of the distribution, with a greater relative increase in the 10th percentile: the Czech Republic, Finland, the Republic of Korea and Switzerland.
Over the last decade, inequality in adolescent self-reported health also widened in the vast majority of the 34 countries for which comparable data are available. In most of these countries, inequality increased because children at the bottom of the distribution lost out more than those in the middle. Not a single country saw a narrowing in inequality, while a few saw no notable change at all.
Yet there is a brighter side to the health story. Inequality in the frequency of physical activity and in abstaining from unhealthy eating (i.e. excess consumption of sugar in food and beverages) narrowed in the majority of the countries. Inequality in life satisfaction remained broadly stable.
Trends in educational inequality are also encouraging. Gaps in reading achievement among 15-year-olds who took part in PISA tests decreased substantially in 21 countries out of the 38 between 2006 and 2012. The 10th percentile increased more than the median in all of these countries except Canada. Only three countries saw a widening in the reading achievement gap: Bulgaria (because the 10th percentile increased less than the median) and Finland and Sweden (because the 10th percentile decreased more than the median).
We need to remind ourselves continuously that children are not responsible for the circumstances of their birth and upbringing. Lagging far behind their peers can scar children’s current lives and future prospects. With the release of Report Card 13, UNICEF Office of Research encourages rich countries to improve the living conditions, education, health and subjective well-being of all children, with extra help for those left furthest behind.
Yekaterina Chzhen is a Social and Economic Policy Specialist with UNICEF Research – Innocenti
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