Austerity putting children at risk: UN

GENEVA (AFP) - The UN warned on Wednesday that austerity measures are hitting children hard, as it published a ranking of kids' well-being in rich countries topped by northern European countries and showing Britain climbing out of the bottom tier.

As governments turn to austerity to avoid passing on huge debt loads to the next generation, they must reflect on how their cuts are affecting children today, said Mr Chris de Neubourg, who heads social and economic policy research at the UN's children's agency.

Instead of sparing today's children of a future burden, they are in many cases "presenting the bill to the children now," risking "letting them pay now and in the future," he told reporters in Geneva ahead of Wednesday's launch of Unicef's report.

The Netherlands, Norway, Iceland, Finland and Sweden were listed as the best wealthy countries for children to live in, while Romania ranked last out of the 29 nations in the comparison.

The United States meanwhile came in at a dismal 26th place in the report, landing among the bottom third in all five categories measured: children's material well-being, health and safety, education, behaviour and risks and housing and environment.

Britain, whose last place in the previous 2007 version of the comparison caused much soul-searching, showed the best progress, climbing to the middle of the pack with a respectable 16th place.

Such improvements, as well as clear differences between countries with similar economies, shows that child poverty "is not inevitable, but policy susceptible," Unicef said, pointing out that "some countries are doing much better than others at protecting their most vulnerable children."

Amid increasing pressure on many governments to implement austerity measures, it is important that they realise the impact their decisions on where to cut will have on kids and their futures, de Neubourg said.

Due to the difficulty digging up comparable statistics, he pointed out that most of the data used in the so-called 2011 report card is actually from 2009-2010, and therefore does not accurately reflect the impact the past couple years' focus on austerity is having on children.

Among southern Europe's most austerity-hit countries, for instance, only Greece and Italy figure among the bottom third of countries, while Portugal and Spain still hovered near the middle of the pack.

"But we are a little bit afraid of what we will find in the next report card," he said.