Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Rich nations not doing enough... make the poor hate children.

In my next life, I want to be a Spin Doctor for a living. It just seems like an incredibly fun job. And there are certain people who just make it so easy.

The United Nations recently put out a report that attempts to measure child welfare in developed nations. Ignoring for a moment the fact that the report grades all of the nations in it relative to each other, rather than against an objective standard (so someone's always going to be on the bottom, no matter how well they're actually doing), it's still likely to be fodder for people who think that the U.N. is stuffed to the rafters with crazy bleeding heart lefties who just can't bear to see anything go wrong for anyone.

But what surprised me was the number of ways that the report left itself open to being used in ways that I can't imagine the authors intended. Not that anyone is likely to do so, but if you really wanted to, you could make some very bizarre arguments based on the statements and conclusions in the report.

For example, to go back to the title of this post, according to the UNICEF report (and I quote):

"To a young person with little sense of current well-being - unhappy and perhaps mistreated at hime, miserable and under-achieving at school, and with only an unskilled and low-paid job to look forward to - having a baby to love and be loved by, with a small income from benefits and a home of her own, may seem a more attractive option and the alternatives. A teenager doing well at school and looking forward to an interesting and well-paid career, and who is surrounded by family and friends who have similarly high expectations, is likely to feel that giving birth would de-rail both present well-being and future hopes."
You can see how it's easy to spin this to say that: "According to the United Nations, rich countries should do a better job teaching young women that children are a threat to their present and future well-being." Because, after all, if poor people had the sense that children would be nothing but a burden, perhaps they wouldn't have as many...

Of course, that's not what they mean, but you get the point. But even their intended meaning misses the point somewhat. For any poor woman, having a child means another mouth to feed - and if you don't have the resources to care for yourself properly, how can you care for a small child? I mean, once the hypothetical unhappy teenager is an adult, and firmly ensconced in her low-paying dead-end job, is she really in a much better position to have a baby than she was as a teenager? Are miserable adults any less likely to have children based more on the percieved emotional benefits than miserable adolescents? (Personally, my experience says "no.")

What's really going on here is that this isn't really a report about the plight of children. The idea is to spur wealthy countries to do more to tackle poverty and income disparity - it's a "do it for the children" pitch. This is why I think they don't set an objective standard to reach - what they're looking for is a sort of perpetual "race to the top" where the various named nations are in constant competition with one another. And many of the standards deal more or less directly with either material affluence, or other factors that have been directly shown to correllate with poverty - such as teen pregnancy and single or divorced parents. But I think that this is another case where "say what you mean" may be the best way to go about it.

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