- Three or four decades ago, many Western societies believed that economic growth and political will could eliminate child poverty in their countries in a generation or so. Now we believe-well, what? That modern economies and globalization dictate growing inequality within our societies? Or that poor families are best left to learn how to help themselves?
The debate was reopened recently in ''Child Poverty in Rich Nations,'' a report from the Unicef Innocenti Research Center in Florence, which estimated that about 47 million persons under age 18 in the 29 nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development lived below their national poverty lines.
Thus, in the societies that produce more than two-thirds of the world's wealth, one youngster in every six is poor.
The Innocenti report uses statistics from different years for different countries, thus making comparisons inexact. And it employs two distinct definitions of child poverty. The authors say this was inevitable, given that the OEDC countries have no overall timetables or definition for measuring child poverty.
The report's unstated but central message is that many Western societies are looking at the problem of child poverty the wrong way around.
It is not really a question of money. The money is going to be spent, one way or another. We simply have to decide whether to spend it on social programs which seek to ensure that all children get a reasonable start in life, or a decade later on addressing high levels of teenage pregnancy, drug addicition and crime.
The two definitions used in the report are:
Relative poverty, which covers children living in homes with incomes 50 percent below the national median. This measurement reflects internal inequality but, because of differing GNP levels, does not capture differences between countries. For example, an American child may be considered poor while a Polish child at the same income level may not be.
Absolute poverty, which is based on the U.S. official poverty line, translated into national currencies and adjusted for national prices.
On the whole, English-speaking countries fare poorly. For relative poverty, the U.S. rate is 22.4 percent of all children, and Canada's is 15.5 percent. For absolute child poverty they move to middle rankings, near Germany, with Canada at 9.5 percent and the United States at 13.9 percent. Best among the Group of Seven nations is France, which also recently topped the World Health Organization's global rankings for health care.
The Innocenti report is not so much interested in pointing a finger at poor performers as in examining the records of North European nations which, while switching order among themselves, occupy the top six spots on both charts: Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg and Belgium.
It strongly argues the case for relative poverty as being key. ''This indicator is crucial because it reflects the degree of disadvantage that children feel in their lives - in education,in opportunity and in sharing some of the good things of life,'' says the economist John Micklewright, one of the report's authors.
''It is true that some children overcome this disadvantage, but they are exceptions,'' he says. ''For many this uneven start, felt every day and often continuing over years, leads to lowered self-esteem, frustration and rebellion. In the end, the quality of life for us all suffers.''
The report seeks to debunk some common assumptions:
If more women stayed out of the work forces, child poverty would be reduced. Research in Nordic countries shows a strong link between high female employment and low child poverty. These countries focus on helping people into paid work, with an emphasis on gender equality and on combining work with parenting. They have maintained low child poverty rates of around 5 percent even in difficult economic times.
Single-parent families are the basic problem. Clearly the child living with one working parent, or a jobless parent, is more likely to be poor than the child in a two-income home. But the issue is complex; much depends on the income level, earned or welfare, of the single-parent family. Sweden has the highest percentage of children in single-parent families (21.3) but the lowest relative poverty rate (2.6).
Single-parent families, in statistical terms, are a relatively small proportion of the total. Poverty in two-parent families is much more important in the overall picture. Canada has about 12 percent of its children living in single-parent families, the same as Finland, but its overall child poverty rate is three times higher than Finland's.
Adult unemployment figues are a good guide to child poverty levels. It depends on who is unemployed. Spain's unemployment levels are double those of Britain, yet its child poverty rate is much lower. Spain has many jobless young adults still living at home.
Economic growth kills poverty sooner or later. Most rich countries have doubled and redoubled their national incomes in the past half-century, but growing income disparities leave many poor in place. Even creating new jobs will not be part of the answer if wages at the bottom of the pay scale are very low, or if the new jobs are unsuitable for poor families.
Then, as the rich get richer, average household incomes rise. So may poverty levels. Thus, economic goals need to be accompanied by social targets.
Are the North European societies unique, or can political will end child poverty in a major industrial country? Britain's relative child poverty tripled over 20 years as income inequality widened. Last year Prime Minister Tony Blair declared it his government's ''historic mission'' to end child poverty by 2020.
Preliminary Innocenti research confirms that, if current British policies continue, the first batch of about a million children will be lifted out of poverty as early as April 2002.
If this happens, the issue will be revealed in what I believe is its true light: Child poverty is not an inevitable by-product of modern economic progress but the result of a lack of political will and of common sense.
The writer, a former senior Unicef official, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.
Copyright 2000 IHT