A new report, Child well-being in rich countries: A comparative overview, was released yesterday by UNICEF. In a comparison of 29 advanced economy countries, Canada ranks in 17th place. When children’s views of their life satisfaction are taken into account, Canada’s ranking drops even further to 24th place.
The report measures well-being using five broad dimensions of a child’s life: behaviours and risks (Canada in 16th place); material well-being (15th); education (14th); housing and environment (11th); health and safety (27th). UNICEF’s decision to focus on these five dimensions in this report demonstrates the importance of the social determinants of health in influencing quality of life and health outcomes. Furthermore, the impacts of the social determinants of health are often amplified for children. For instance, scientists at the Canadian Institute of Advanced Research have provided evidence that socioeconomic status affects family function and the development of the regions of the brain that link to attention, learning and memory, which are all essential to childhood development. These also extend to other social determinants of health, such as housing. Children are more sensitive to mold and are at greater risk of chronic conditions such as asthma. Conversely, early interventions can have lifetime positive impacts.
The report reminds us that good health is not solely determined by healthcare, but is also shaped by complex and dynamic political, social, and economic factors that work together and reinforce each other. To achieve better health, we must make the connections between the different circumstances in which people live, grow, work and age.
For example, the UNICEF report shows that Canadian children have higher than average rates of childhood obesity and of educational achievement under the age of 15. Canada is one of three countries that have childhood obesity levels higher than 20%. Recent work by the Wellesley Institute examining childhood obesity through a health equity lens demonstrates that education, along with other social determinants of health, play a significant role in childhood obesity.
The finding in the UNICEF report that Canadian children under the age of 15 also show above average educational achievements in math, reading and science, points to a missed opportunity. There is an opening here to bring together the resources of an existing educational system , the openness and success in learning exhibited by Canadian children, and critical information on healthy weights and healthy behaviours as a way to address childhood obesity in our country. However, for this learning to occur, we need to ensure that all children have access to high quality education in a safe environment within their community and nutritious food to ensure optimal performance levels. In addition, it is important to support disadvantaged schools and vulnerable students most prone to dropping out of school at an early age.
Reflecting on the causes of the changes in rankings; it is important to take the policy environment into account. For example, UNICEF UK has noted that the austerity agenda of the current government plays a role in their disappointing ranking. Government policies can also enhance children’s chances. Policy recommendations that have been advocated for by Campaign 2000 that would enhance outcomes in this report include:
- an enhanced child benefit for low-income families
- a public system of high quality early childhood education and child care services that are affordable and available to all children
- a long-term national housing strategy that reflects the needs of local communities and that responds to the immediate needs of families and social housing providers across Canada
In looking at the low ranking of Canadian children’s well-being and the importance of the early years in life-long health, the time to take action is now.