02/22/2007 05:08 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Worst Place to Be a Kid

The story played big in Brunei, Georgia, Thailand, Seychelles, not to mention most of Europe. It did not play in New York or Washington. The Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, Dallas Morning News, San Francisco Chronicle all overlooked it. It snuck into San Diego, Los Angeles and Atlanta but few other major- or mid-market papers. The Washington Post carried an AP wire story as did papers in Concord, NH, Casper, WY, Wilmington, NC, York, PA, and Aberdeen, SD. Not to denigrate any of these fine places, but, aside from DC, they are not generally thought of as media central.

The story asks the question: Where is the best rich country in the world to be a kid? UNICEF's Innocenti Research Center ranked 21 developed nations on six dimensions of child well-being. If you're a lucky kid, you're in the Netherlands and if you can't make that scene, you can settle for Sweden, Denmark, or Finland. You're worst off if you're in the United Kingdom (21st) or the United States (20th).

The English media have been all over this story. The U. S. media have not. In the U.K., stories indicted both outgoing PM Tony Blair and likely incoming PM Gordon Brown for the "shameful" state of English children. In the U.S., Brittany's bald pate and in-and-out-of-rehab antics got more ink and air time.

Whenever a report on international test scores arrives, the media all rush to report it, usually describing the U. S. performance as mediocre at best and making dire predictions about our future in the global economy unless the schools shape up. The media largely fell mute on this report that describes the conditions that make for high or low test scores. Ironically, enough, America's highest rank, 12th, came on the dimension "educational well-being" which combines test scores, educational attainment, and the transition to employment (next best U. S. rank: 17th).

In this study, the nation with by far the largest GDP per capita, finishes dead last in relative poverty, 25th (on some components of the dimensions, data were available for more than 21 nations). Among those same 25 countries, the U. S. finishes 24th in infant mortality and 22nd for low birth weight rate. If being ranked 15th of 44 nations in TIMSS 2003 8th grade mathematics is a scandal, how does one begin to describe our rankings on infant mortality and low birth weights (known to produce cognitive deficits)?

The U. S. has the most children living with step-parents and in single-parent families. It is 22nd in the percent of children who eat the main meal of the day with their parents "several times a week," 66%. Italy is first, 93% with Iceland, France, Netherlands, Switzerland and Belgium all hovering right at 90%.

And so it goes.

But not to worry. Margaret Spellings and Kati Haycock assure us that the schools alone will wipe out the achievement gap between whites and minorities and fashion for us a generation of healthy, happy people secure in their roles as citizens in a democracy. I wonder how the media will cover that.

This is not a new catastrophe brought on by recent waves of poor immigrants. Our willingness to overlook poverty and its devastation runs far back in history. In Volume II, 1967, of his Children of Crisis series, psychiatrist Robert Coles declared, "There are moments, and I believe this is one of them, when, whoever we are, observers or no, we have to throw up our hands in heaviness of heart and dismay and disgust and say, in desperation: God save them, those children; and for allowing such a state of affairs to continue, God save us, too."

UNICEF Innocenti Research Center Report Card 7, Child Poverty in Perspective: An Overview of Child Well-Being in Rich Countries.