Child well-being is important for lifelong health and well-being. Although there is a robust evidence base linking social determinants of health (eg, relative poverty and income inequality) to child well-being, social and public health policy tends to focus on interventions to mitigate their effects, rather than remove the root causes. The goal of this study was to examine associations between child well-being and income inequality.
We compared reported rates of childhood well-being in the 2007 and 2013 UNICEF reports on child well-being in wealthy countries. Twenty indicators of child well-being (excluding child poverty) were defined consistently in both the 2007 and 2013 reports. These variables were used to create an indicator of change in child well-being over the approximate decade 2000 to 2010. For our analyses of income inequality, we used the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Gini coefficient of income inequality for 2009 and change between 2000 and 2009, respectively.
The overall index of child well-being in 2013 was closely and negatively correlated with income inequality (r = −0.60, P = .004) but not with average income (r = –0.3460, P = .12). Adjustment for income inequality, children in relative poverty, and the child poverty gap did not change the lack of association between average income and child well-being in 2013 in wealthy countries. Between 2000 and 2010, child well-being scores improved most in Italy, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and Germany. The biggest declines were seen in Sweden, Canada, Japan, Switzerland, and France. Countries that experienced the largest increases in income inequality had significantly greater declines in child well-being (r = –0.51, P = .02).
Children born into socioeconomically disadvantaged families suffer worse child well-being and its lifelong implications, in all societies, worldwide. Our analyses show, however, that some wealthy societies are able to mitigate these inequalities; these societies have better child well-being, on average. This outcome has less to do with specific welfare policies or targeted interventions for poor children than to a societal commitment to greater equality.