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The Kids Aren’t Alright

In an era of great power competition, China and Russia are closing the gap with the United States when it comes to child welfare.

A teacher surrounded by children draws a smiley face on a fruit to welcome World Smile Day at a kindergarten in Handan, China, on May 8.
A teacher surrounded by children draws a smiley face on a fruit to welcome World Smile Day at a kindergarten in Handan, China, on May 8. Hao Qunying/VCG/Getty Images

As Washington strives to maintain an edge in defense and technology in an era of renewed great power rivalry, there is one area in which Russia and China are rapidly closing the gap with the United States: the well-being of children.

According to a new report published Tuesday by the international nonprofit Save the Children, the United States is now on a par with China and ranks just above Russia in their End of Childhood Index, which assesses the number of kids impacted by poverty, violence, premature marriage, and pregnancy around the world.

In the three years that Save the Children has compiled its annual Global Childhood Report, China has moved up from 41st to 36th in terms of best countries for children, while the United States has remained static at 36th, tying with China and coming in just behind Kuwait and Belarus.

Singapore tops the list, while South Korea and European nations make up the rest of the top 10.

The report looks at eight factors that can derail childhood and finds that while the United States fares better than China when it comes to the percentage of children in school, malnutrition, and child mortality rates, the United States has significantly higher rates of teen pregnancy, child marriage, and child homicide.

For this year’s report, Save the Children looked back to compare how countries fare with these issues compared to in 2000 and found dramatic improvements worldwide. All but three of the 176 countries for which data was available showed progress in child well-being, and improvements were most pronounced in developing nations.

While the United States has made progress too—with teen births down 56 percent and a two-thirds reduction in the number of kids missing out on school compared to 2000—Russia and China are making progress faster.

Since 2000, the United States has improved by 32 points in the End of Childhood Index, while Russia and China have improved by 56 and 80 points, respectively, out of 1,000 possible points.

“While we’re getting better, the rest of the world is getting better faster,” said Carolyn Miles, the president and CEO of Save the Children.

While the United States is one of the wealthiest, most developed countries in the world, it lags behind its Western European counterparts when it comes to child welfare. That is especially acute in rural America, where almost one in four children grow up in poverty, according to Save the Children.

John Farden, an associate vice president at Save the Children, said that poverty rates for children in rural areas are consistently higher than in urban areas.

Last year, as a complement to their Global Childhood Report, the organization published a deep dive on children in rural America, which found that while urban areas held the highest number of children living in poverty, the proportion of children in poverty was higher in rural areas.

“Not only were poverty rates consistently higher but also other things that we think of as childhood enders such as child mortality, ability to go onto higher education, food insecurity. All of those indicators were significantly higher for rural children,” Farden said.

Overall, however, the report finds much cause for celebration. In the space of a single generation, significant improvements have been made, and children around the world are now safer and healthier than they have ever been. Compared to the year 2000, there are 115 million fewer children out of school, there are 94 million fewer child laborers, and 49 million fewer children have stunted growth because of malnutrition.

Save the Children named 10 factors that have helped this leap, including the empowerment of women and girls, new technologies, and international support.

Speaking with journalists, Miles said that political commitment by national governments was a critical factor in determining a country’s progress in caring for its kids. She used the example of Ethiopia, which made some of the most pronounced improvements over the past 18 years. The country has received worldwide recognition for efforts to save the lives of newborn babies, and the number of children dying has been cut by half since 2000. Commitments by national and local governments and investments in nutrition programs has led to 1.3 million fewer children having their physical and mental development stunted by poor nutrition.

While progress has been made across the board in Ethiopia, the report notes that poorer children are not benefiting as much as those from wealthier families, widening the gap between rich and poor children.

Political will, or a lack thereof, could also explain sluggish progress in the United States.

Farden of Save the Children pointed to the way in which the U.S. war on poverty, a legislative push begun in the 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, affected poverty rates among children and seniors.

Between 1966 and 2012 the number of seniors living in poverty dropped by two-thirds to 9.1 percent, whereas child poverty rates show less improvement and today nearly one in five children in the United States is still estimated to live in poverty.

“Kids don’t vote. There’s definitely that difference in political power,” Miles said.

In only three countries were children found to be worse off when compared to 2000: Syria, Venezuela, and Trinidad and Tobago, where malnutrition has caused the number of children with stunted growth to double.

Venezuela, rocked by years of political and economic strife, has seen the number of children murdered skyrocket by 60 percent, and the number of children who do not live to see their fifth birthday has risen by 40 percent.

Unsurprisingly Syria fell furthest in the rankings as more than eight years of war has pulled childhoods apart at the seams, uprooting children from their homes and school. Child marriage and forced labor are also on the rise among Syrian refugee children.

Of the eight so-called “childhood enders” examined by Save the Children, the only one in which there was no improvement was the number of children displaced around the world, which has skyrocketed since 2000.

By the end of 2017, a record 68.5 million people around the world were displaced, including 31 million children.

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

C.K. Hickey is the interactives and features designer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @seekayhickey