Shameful ranking

In the mean time, tax cuts for wealth continue to pile up. Does the body of Christ truly honor all parts of the body or only a few?

U.S. and Alaska lag behind in quality of life for children

We've all heard politicians spout the platitude, "Children are our most precious resource." Apparently, talk on that front is cheap and action is lacking. When the United States is compared with other countries in how well we provide for children, our ranking looks pretty abysmal.

The sad tale is told in a new U.N. report. "An overview of child well-being in rich countries" looks at how 21 countries compare in six major areas, covering education, health, safety, family status and economic indicators.

Overall, the United States came in next to last. Only Great Britain was worse. Even the least-prosperous industrialized countries on the list -- Poland, Greece, Czech Republic, Portugal -- ranked well above the U.S.

Some of the factors used to rank countries were potentially dubious, subjective measures like how many children "like school a lot" or report "negatively about personal well-being." Leave aside those squishy measures, though, and look at indisputable, objective data. The U.S. still falls near the bottom of the pack.

Infant mortality: Only Hungary was worse. Death rate for children under 19 years old: Only New Zealand was worse.

Low-birth-weight babies (a sign of poor pre-natal care and a risk factor for future developmental problems): Only Greece and Hungary were worse.

Rate at which teenagers (15 to 19) have babies: The U.S. was in last place, with the highest rate.

Educational achievement of 15-year-olds, measured on a common test in each country: The U.S. was 21st of the 25 countries studied.

On an index of health behaviors, covering smoking, drinking, obesity, exercise and fighting, only children in Great Britain fared worse than U.S. children.

The U.S. did do better on some measures. We were in the middle of the pack for providing children with immunizations. We ranked fifth in having the smallest percentage of children in homes where no parent has a job. But that statistic masks a unpleasant truth about today's U.S. economy. As high-wage jobs become more scarce, more parents have to work two jobs to have a decent standard of living. That extra work takes time away from children.

The economic struggles of U.S. families show up in another statistic. We have the largest gap between rich and poor families. More than one in five U.S. children live in homes at the bottom end of the country's economic ladder -- giving us by far the worst ranking of the nations listed.

OK, so the U.S. rankings are pretty bad. Alaska is a rich state; do we do any better?

Unfortunately not. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation's annual Kids Count report, Alaska ranks 35th among the 50 states in the well-being of children. That's a sharp drop from 30th in 1999-2000.

Alaska is better than the nation in some areas, like teen birth rates and low-birth-weight babies. Most notably, Alaska's percentage of children living in poverty is 20 percent below the national average. But Alaska's child death rate is 80 percent higher, immunization rates are lower and substance abuse is more prevalent.

The take-home message from the U.N. report is pretty simple. A country's wealth, by itself, does not ensure that its children will prosper. Nations make choices that affect children's welfare, for better or worse. Government policies can improve social conditions for children.

Our poor national and state rankings for child welfare are not immutable facts of life. We can do better, both in Alaska and in the country as a whole -- and we must.

BOTTOM LINE: Alaska and the U.S. can do a whole lot better by our children.


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