Canada and U.S. child poverty rankings near bottom among 31 countries: Social Justice study

No 320 Posted by fw, October 31, 2011

Although Canada ranked 9th overall on a multidimensional measure of social justice, it fell to 24th place on the child poverty dimension alone. The U.S. trailed behind Canada on this variable in 28th position. At the bottom on the scale were, in descending order, Chile, Turkey and Mexico.

Child Poverty Rankings

The child poverty rankings were part of a new multidimensional research study released October 30, 2011 by a German foundation, Bertelsmann Stitfung. Six social justice factors were included in the scoring: Poverty prevention; Access to education; Labour market inclusion; Social cohesion and non-discrimination, Health, and Intergenerational justice. On the overall social justice scale, Canada ranked 9th and the U.S. 27th.

A 56-page summary of the final book-length report is available for download by clicking on this title: Social Justice in the OECD How Do the Member States Compare?. This post includes Key Findings and the Conclusion from the summary report.

Key Findings

A cross-national comparison of social justice in the OECD shows considerable variation in the extent to which this principle is developed in these market-based democracies. According to the methodology applied in this study, Iceland and Norway are the most socially just countries.  Turkey, which ranks among the bottom five in each of the six targeted dimensions, is the OECD’s least socially just country. The findings of the cross-national study can be summarized as follows –

The north European States comprise a league of their own. Leading by far on the Justice Index, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland achieve particularly good results in the dimensions of “access to education,” “social cohesion” and “intergenerational justice.” Yet even in Scandinavia, there are some areas in want of action. Despite its overall strong showing, Sweden, for example, struggles with a rate of youth unemployment three times as high as the general unemployment rate.

Most central and northwestern European states rank in the upper midrange, although the Netherlands (6), Switzerland (7) and France (10) rank higher than Germany (14). The east-central European OECD members, Hungary (17), Poland (10) and Slovakia (24) rank in the lower midrange together with their southern European neighbors. The high-ranking outlier here is the Czech Republic (11) due to its very low poverty levels in cross-national comparison.

All southern European countries lie considerably below the OECD average, with Turkey and Greece in the bottom group of the ranking. In both these countries, fair access to education and intergenerational justice (i.e., equity in burden-sharing across generations) are particularly under- developed.

Canada (9) is the top performer among the non-European OECD states. Its high ranking can be attributed to strong results in the areas of education, labor market justice and social cohesion. Australia (21), despite its relatively inclusive labor market, is struggling with larger problems in poverty prevention and educational justice, and is therefore lagging behind in terms of creating a sound framework for social justice.

Japan (22) and South Korea (25), where income poverty is relatively spread, fail to rank above the bottom third of the Justice Index. Japan also receives particularly low marks for intergenerational justice.

The United States (27), with its alarming poverty levels, lands near the bottom of the weighted index, ranking only slightly better than its neighbor Mexico (30) and new OECD member Chile (29).

If we look at the results through the prism of the six targeted dimensions underlying the Justice Index, we see a mixed bag of strengths and weaknesses among the 31 OECD states surveyed:

Poverty prevention: Income poverty is a widespread problem in the industrial states comprising the OECD. Among the surveyed countries, an average of 10.8 percent of the population is considered “poor,” meaning these individuals live on less than half the national median income. Of particular concern is the alarming rate of child poverty in the OECD, which stands at an average of 12.3 percent – higher than the overall rate of poverty. This highlights the fact that there are several regions in the OECD where the basic conditions needed for social justice are not being met. After all, living in conditions of poverty makes it near impossible to participate in society and develop the capacity to lead a self-determined life. But there are stark contrasts among the OECD states: Denmark and the Czech Republic, for example, are by far most successful in pre- venting poverty. However, a relatively large percentage of the populations in the United States, Chile and Mexico live in income poverty, which puts them at a disadvantage in terms of participating in society.

Access to education: A socially just society is distinguished by the presence of equal opportunities in education for all. The most recent PISA study results show that the north European states of Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Denmark come closest to fulfilling this ideal. Among all OECD states, Iceland and Finland show the weakest correlation between students’ socioeconomic background and their success in education. In contrast, the means of access to success in education in Turkey, Greece or Hungary are weak, which does not bode well for each country’s future. A strong correlation between socioeconomic background and academic achievement and/or limited spending on early childhood education account for the poor results found in these countries.

Labor market inclusion: The economic crisis has had a negative impact on the labor markets of most countries. Ireland, for instance, has gone from enjoying near full employment before the crisis to struggling with two-digit unemployment rates (13.7 percent). Iceland, Norway and Switzerland are the best performers in terms of labor market inclusion – not only because of their continued encouraging employment rates, but also because they tolerate little discrimination in terms of age, gender or ethnic origin. Labor markets in Slovakia and Spain, by contrast, function under the least just conditions in the OECD. The difficult situation for labor markets has relaxed in only a few countries. In Germany, for example, unemployment figures have dropped for the first time in several years below three million. Nonetheless, the country’s labor market shows deficits in other areas, particularly in terms of long-term unemployment.

Social cohesion and non-discrimination: This dimension of social justice encompasses various factors relevant to maintaining the social fabric of a national community, such as income distribution, the prevention of discrimination and social exclusion, and the integration of migrants into society. Norway and Sweden, followed by Finland and Denmark, attain the highest scores in this dimension, in part because the gap in earned income between men and women is smallest in these countries. Generally, tendencies of discrimination are effectively prevented within the egalitarian societies of northern Europe. However, some of the Nordic countries show deficits in the area of integration policy. Turkey ranks last in social cohesion in part because of its poor performance in preventing discrimination. The OECD states of Mexico and Chile, where income distribution is particularly unequal, fare only marginally better on this point.

Health: As it relates to equal opportunities for self-realization, health is another key dimension of the Justice Index. Healthy living conditions depend to a large extent on an individual’s socio-economic context. Overall, Iceland, New Zealand, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Sweden receive the highest marks in this category because health services in these countries are broadly inclusive and, on comparison, of very high quality. Mexico, Turkey, Poland and Slovakia receive the lowest scores in this category. Worth noting is the fact that individuals’ perceived health status can vary considerably across socioeconomic boundaries. Whereas in New Zealand, the percent- age of those considering themselves healthy is among low-income earners only slightly lower than it is among high-income earners, we observe in other countries like Portugal, Czech Republic and Germany major differences according to income levels. In the latter countries, a much smaller percentage of those with lower incomes consider themselves healthy than do those with higher incomes.

Intergenerational justice: Sustainable social justice can be ensured only if social burdens are shared among young and old, and if future generations are guaranteed sound social and environmental conditions. Particularly important considerations in this regard are consistency in family and pension policies, environmental policies that ensure a viable future, and fiscal sustainability. Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland receive the highest marks in pursuing inter-generationally just policies. These countries come closest to meeting the complex multidimensional demands of such a goal. Greece receives the lowest scores in this category, in large part due to the major shortcomings observed there in its family, pension and environmental policies. Japan lands – at first glance somewhat surprisingly – at second-to-last place on this dimension due to its high level of national debt, which is more than twice that of its GDP.

 Conclusion

Social justice is more than just a concept. Indeed, the sustainability of a socially responsible market economy depends on the extent to which social justice is defined in operational terms and realized through concrete measures, norms and decisive action. According to the understanding of social justice underlying the present study, a society must be able to guarantee all its members genuinely equal opportunities for self-realization through targeted investments in the development of individual capabilities. This concept, which encompasses both personal freedom and the empowerment to pursue a self-determined course of life, is thoroughly capable of garnering wide- spread consensus and bridging competing political agendas in a productive manner.

There are well-defined areas of political and social activity to be derived from the conceptual paradigm of enabling people to participate. It is incumbent upon states to target these areas of activity, namely the effective prevention of poverty, provision of equal opportunities of access to education and employment, prevention of any form of discrimination, facilitation of equal treatment, integration that precludes segregation, guaranteeing equal access to high quality health care provisions, and achieving a fair balance between generations, and to do so in concert with actors in civil society.

The Justice Index serves as a guide to the areas found wanting in individual OECD member states. Without presuming to represent the full complexity of social reality on the ground, a cross-national comparison of this kind shows clearly that social justice and market economic performance in no way counteract each other, as is demonstrated by the success observed on both fronts in the north European states. Even if these countries do not top the ranking of each indicator considered here, the “universalist” welfare states of northern Europe are nonetheless most capable of providing equal opportunities for self-realization within their respective societies. In sum, these countries come closest to fulfilling the complex and multidimensional demands of the six single dimensions outlined in this report.

Of course, this is not to suggest that policies and approaches yielding success in one country will necessarily yield the same success in another political system. Long-standing institutional path dependencies, the diversity of political cultures, and diverging concepts of the welfare state must be taken into account when considering the state of affairs in another country. Nevertheless, this should not prevent those in search of effective approaches to draw inspiration from the priorities set and success of measures taken in other countries.

After all, the creation of equal participation opportunities constitutes more than an ethical and social obligation in terms of ensuring solidarity and mutual responsibility in society; it is a fundamental investment in the sustainability of our societies. Policies that facilitate participation in society require widespread consensus on a regulative and conceptual framework in which values such as solidarity, social responsibility and the common good are cherished. Political actors – as well as individual citizens – must therefore act to uphold the principles of a sustainable and socially just order in which economic strength and social justice do not undermine but complement and facilitate each other.

FAIR USE NOTICE: This blog, Citizen Action Monitor, may contain copyrighted material that may not have been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Such material, published without profit, is made available for educational purposes, to advance understanding of human rights, democracy, scientific, moral, ethical, and social justice issues. It is published in accordance with the provisions of the 2004 Supreme Court of Canada ruling and its six principle criteria for evaluating fair dealing
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