We cannot end child poverty in Europe without measuring all of its dimensions

The European Union measures child poverty as the share of children living in households with incomes below 60 per cent of the national median, but this indicator tells us little about how children fare within their families. A child living in a well-off household may still be deprived of the possessions, services and social relationships that other children take for granted. This is the so-called ‘Harry Potter style poverty’. The opposite can also be true: children in income-poor households may still enjoy fulfilling relationships with friends and family as well as access to high quality public services.

SDG 1 calls for  “reducing at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions”

The new Innocenti Report Card 14 Building the Future: Children and the Sustainable Development Goals in Rich Countries ranks 41 advanced economies on 9 measures of social progress for children. The Sustainable Development Goal 1 (SDG 1) calls for  “reducing at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions” (Target 1.2) by 2030. As the SDGs are universal, higher income countries are also called on to monitor progress towards halving the multidimensional poverty rate within 15 years.

rc14-3-1figureUNICEF Innocenti has developed a methodology to measure multidimensional child poverty that is rooted in the children’s rights framework (see UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989) and puts the child at the centre of analysis. Multiple Overlapping Deprivation Analysis (MODA) defines the indicators and dimensions of child poverty using mainly child-specific items, although a few, such as housing quality, are measured at the level of the household. More than 40 lower and middle income countries have conducted national MODA studies.

The Innocenti Report Card 14 applied the MODA methodology to a cross-country comparison using data for 28 European Union countries, plus Iceland and Switzerland from the 2009 and 2014 ad-hoc material deprivation modules of the European Union Statistics on Income and Living Conditions. Children are counted as multidimensionally poor if they are deprived in at least two dimensions of poverty out of the seven that we have data for – nutrition, clothing, educational resources, leisure activities, social activities, information access and quality of housing. (Please see the working paper for details of the methodology and results). Across the seven dimensions, poverty rates tend to be higher in housing, leisure and social activities than in nutrition, clothing or educational resources. Comparable measures were not available for non-European countries.

Report Card 14 includes both multidimensional child poverty and income poverty in the country rankings for SDG 1 “No Poverty”, along with a measure of social transfers’ effectiveness in reducing income poverty. The five Nordic countries, as well as Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland, do best in this comparison. In contrast, Bulgaria, Canada, Mexico, Romania and the United States rank lowest due to their high rates of income poverty among children and limited capacity of social transfers to reduce it.

The countries’ performance on poverty is the best predictor of their overall ranking across all nine child-relevant goals included in Report Card 14. Only SDG 10 “Inequality” comes near. All the countries in the top third of the summary League Table rank in the top third of the poverty ranking, except Japan, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom that rank in the middle-third on poverty. Similarly, all of the overall bottom-third performers also rank in the bottom third on poverty, except Malta and Slovakia in its middle-third.  All nine goals contribute equally to the summary League Table, which sorts countries according to their average ranking across the nine goals.

Yekaterina Chzhen is a social and economic policy specialist at the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti. She works on multidimensional child poverty, comparative social policy and child well-being. She recently co-edited a book about the impact of the Great Recession on child poverty in rich countries Children of Austerity”. Follow Yekaterina on Twitter at @kat_chzhen. Follow the UNICEF Office of Research at @UNICEFInnocenti.

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  1. Congratulations on the report. Interesting approach, but SDG #1 defines poverty in absolute terms ($1.90 per person per day) whereas RC 14 seems to define it in purely relative terms. These indicators trend in opposite directions in many countries (since incomes and income inequality rise in tandem). Do the rankings change dramatically with absolute threshold?

    1. The official SDG indicator uses 60% of the median income for cross-country comparability.

    2. Thanks, Frank! Unlike Target 1.1 ($1.25 a day), Target 1.2 talks about national definitions of poverty, which could well be relative. Here we operationalize Target 1.2 in a way that’s cross-country comparative and uses an EU-wide threshold just so that we can rank countries at a point in time.