Childhood's ends and means

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Spending more and getting less: sound familiar? A recent assessment of the well-being of children in the industrialized world offers some parallels and correlations between the state of the nation's wheezing health care system and the prognosis for its youngest and most vulnerable members: U.S. children. (Hat tip to Robert Sensor and his Human Rights for Workers blog for alerting us to this report.)

The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based research and policymaking body that roughly approximates a winner's club of modern Western capitalism, for the first time in its history trained its wonky eyes on the kids coming of age within its 30 member states, which include most of Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Japan. Its researchers found some things to be smug about but a lot to be alarmed about, particularly in the United States.

Overall, the nation is performing rather poorly in the care and feeding of its next generation of workers and consumers compared to its peer group. U.S. children are less healthy than their counterparts in Europe; their education is shakier. This poor showing occurs despite the fact that the U.S.,at $140,000 a tousled head, spends slightly more than the OECD average of $125,000 on children up the age 18.

According to the report: "In spite of the United States being a very high income country, in key outcomes of health, education and poverty, U.S. children do less well than their peers in other, less rich countries. Infant mortality (4th worst in the OECD after Mexico, Turkey and the Slovak Republic) and child mortality (5th worst in the OECD) are higher than the OECD average. So too are rates of low birth weight (6th worst in the OECD)."

Not unlike our health care system, we may not be getting the greatest bang for our many bucks in terms of spending on children.

The study suggests that the poor showing in the United States on overall child welfare is at least partly driven by an alarming epidemic of teen parenthood, the rate of teen births in the U.S. is three times the OECD average and beaten only by Mexico among OECD nation members. But another major driver of poor performance is our skewed funding priorities. Too much is spent in the United States on older kids between 12 and 18 and not enough on kids when they are very young—infant to 6—when smart dollar investments in preventative health, education, and general well-being can provide dramatic payoffs later in life.

In fact U.S. spending on kids under six lags far behind other countries, amounting to only $20,000 per child, $10,000 below the OECD average. "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," the OECD said.

That imbalance is partly attributable to America's over-the-top spending on health care. That big sucking sound you hear is health care draining public and private resources that could be better spent on a gamut of other social needs related to child well-being. If Obama needs to find a more convincing justification to devise a tighter grip on America's spiraling health care costs—now on a path to consume 25 percent of the nation's GDP if reform now cannot restrain its voracious appetite—he might want to hold up a forlorn looking toddler the next time Glen Beck goes into rhetorical hyperdrive.