The Progress of Nations: The Industrial World

Safety nets for children are weakest in US

All other industrialized nations do more to lift their children out of poverty than the United States, according to a recent survey by the Luxembourg Income Study.

Without government tax and transfers, for example, France and the US would both have 25% of their children in poverty. In France, government action has slashed that figure to 6.5%. In the US, government policy reduces the figure only marginally to 21.5%.

In 11 of the 18 countries surveyed, child poverty is at least halved by government welfare measures. Eight nations - Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland - have succeeded in keeping child poverty rates below 5%.

The survey of 18 industrialized nations draws the poverty line at 50% of each country's median income after taxes and welfare benefits have been taken into account. In-kind benefits such as subsidized health care or preschools are not included.

With more than one in five of its children below the line, the US easily heads the child poverty league. Only four other countries - Australia, Canada, Ireland, and Israel - have child poverty rates of more than 10%.

Few countries publish regular statistics on poverty, making it difficult to track progress over time. In most industrialized nations, child poverty seems to have remained stable, or deteriorated slightly, over the last two decades.

The survey notes "hints of improvement" in Canada, where spending on benefits has risen, and in Sweden, where spending on benefits has been consistently high.

By contrast, Israel, the United Kingdom, and the US showed a clear trend through the 1980s towards a worsening situation for children. In the 18 years between 1969 and 1986, the percentage of children living in poverty in the UK almost doubled - from 5.3% to 9.9%. Over the same period the US saw a similarly steep rise in child poverty rates - from 13.1% to 22.9%.

The Luxembourg Income Study's 1990 updates for Israel and the UK are not yet available. But the latest figure for the US suggests that the deterioriation may be levelling off.

SOURCE Lee Rainwater and Timothy M. Smeeding, 'Doing Poorly: The Real Income of American Children in a Comparative Perspective', Luxembourg Income Study, Working Paper No. 127, August 1995. The poverty line is defined as 50% of national median income.

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