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Despite spending, US fares poorly in survey of child welfare

Watchdog urges more focus on those under age 6

By Greg Keller
Associated Press / September 2, 2009

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PARIS - America has some of the industrial world’s worst rates of infant mortality, teenage pregnancy, and child poverty, though it spends more per child than better-performing countries such as Switzerland, Japan, and the Netherlands, a new survey indicates.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based watchdog of industrialized nations, urged the United States to shift more of its public spending to its youngest children, under the age of 6, to improve their health and educational performance.

The report released yesterday, “Doing Better for Children,’’ marks the first time the OECD has reported on child well-being within its 30 member countries.

The United States spends an average of $140,000 per child, well over the OECD average of $125,000. But this spending is skewed heavily toward older children between 12 and 17, the survey showed.

US spending on children under 6, a period the OECD says is key to children’s future well-being, lags far behind other countries, amounting to only $20,000 per child on average compared with the OECD average of $30,000, the survey showed.

“A better balance of spending between the ‘Dora the Explorer’ years of early childhood and the teenage Facebook years would help improve the health, education, and well-being of all children in the long term,’’ it said.

As a result, infant mortality in the United States is the fourth-worst in the OECD after Mexico, Turkey, and Slovakia. American 15-year-olds rank seventh from the bottom on the measure of educational achievement. Child poverty rates are nearly double the average, at 21.6 percent compared with 12.4 percent.

The rate of teen births in the United States is three times the OECD average, with only Mexico recording a higher rate among OECD countries, the report said.

Timothy Smeeding, author of “Poor Kids in a Rich Country: America’s Children in Comparative Perspective,’’ said America’s troubles stem from a flawed mix of government spending and not enough help for the working poor.

“Most of what we spend is for health care, so there is less money to spend on income support programs, to keep the incomes of the poor up. We do spend highly on education - but it’s off the charts on health care,’’ he said by phone from the United States.