Unicef report finds that one in three British children are in ‘multi-dimensional poverty’ and says gaps between rich and poor are widening around the world.
The UK has some of the highest levels of hunger and deprivation among the world’s richest nations, according to a wide-ranging United Nations assessment of child health and wellbeing.
The Unicef report ranks 41 high-income countries against 25 indicators tracking progress against internationally agreed goals to end child poverty and hunger, promote health, ensure quality education, and reduce inequality.
It concludes that the majority of rich countries are going backwards on inequality indicators as gaps between rich and poor widen, with many performing poorly in key areas of child health, notably as a consequence of rising obesity rates.
“Income inequality is growing, adolescents’ mental health is worsening, and child obesity is growing,” the report states.
Nearly one in five UK children under the age of 15 suffers from food insecurity – meaning their family lacks secure access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food – putting it above the rich country average of 13%.
One in three UK children are in what Unicef calls “multi-dimensional poverty” – which measures deprivation in a number of areas linked to children’s rights including housing, clothing, nutrition and access to social and leisure activities.
Sarah Cook, the director of Unicef Innocenti, which carried out the assessment, said the report was a “wake-up call” to governments that even in high-income countries progress does not benefit all children.
“Higher incomes do not automatically lead to improved outcomes for all children, and may indeed deepen inequalities. Governments in all countries need to take action to ensure the gaps are reduced and progress is made to reach the sustainable development goals for children.”
However, the report acknowledges that there had been positive progress in many areas, and the vast majority of rich countries have witnesses declines in neonatal deaths, adolescent suicide, teenage births and child homicide rates.
Food insecurity rates ranged from 1% in Japan to 20% in the US and 35% in Mexico. “Although the general availability of food is not a problem in any of these countries, too many families struggle to satisfy their children’s nutritional needs,” the report says.
One in seven children aged 11-15 in rich countries are obese or overweight, the report says. This varies from Denmark, where already low rates have fallen in recent years to 8%, to Canada and Malta, where one in four children in this age group are considered overweight.
The report finds that across rich countries an average one in five children live in relative income poverty on a scale that runs from Denmark (9%) to Germany (15%), the UK (20%) and the US (29%) through to Romania (39%). Using the multidimensional child poverty tool, there were similarly wide variations from Switzerland (11% ) to the UK (34%) and Romania (85%).
The UK ranks 16th out of 41 on tackling poverty, 34th on food insecurity, 15th on health and wellbeing, 31st on economic growth, and sixth on reducing inequalities.
The highest ranked countries across all indicators were Norway, Germany, Denmark and Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Switzerland, South Korea and the Netherlands. The lowest were Chile, Bulgaria, Romania, Mexico and the US.
“The presence of countries such as New Zealand and the United States in the bottom reaches of this table is proof that high national income alone is no guarantee of a good record in sustaining child well-being,” the report states.
The report is the first attempt to assess the status of children in 41 high-income countries in relation to the UN sustainable development goals agreed last year to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all.