Spend early on children, says OECD


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01/09/2009 - Governments should invest more money on children in the first six years of their lives to reduce social inequality and help all children, especially the most vulnerable, have happier lives, according to the OECD’s first-ever report on child well-being in its 30 member countries.

Doing Better for Children shows that average public spending by OECD countries up to age six accounts for only a quarter of all child spending. But a better balance of spending between the “Dora the Explorer” years of early childhood and the teenage “Facebook” years would help improve the health, education and well-being of all children in the long term, according to the report.

“The crisis is putting pressure on public budgets across the world. But any short-term savings on spending on children’s education and health would have major long-term costs for society,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. “Governments should instead seize this opportunity to get better value from their investment in children. And spending early, when the foundations for a child’s future are laid, is key especially for disadvantaged children and can help them break out of a family cycle of poverty and social exclusion.”

Doing Better for Children compares public spending and policies for children with key indicators of child-wellbeing in OECD countries. These include education, health, housing, family incomes and quality of school life.

Countries that spend relatively more on their youngest children include Finland, France, Hungary, Iceland and Norway. In contrast, Ireland, Japan, The Netherlands, New Zealand and the United States spend relatively little on young children.

The US, for example, spends USD 20 000 on children up to age six, compared with an OECD average of USD 30 000. Total public spending on children in the US, however, at USD 140 000, is higher than the OECD average of just over USD 125 000. But despite this higher spending, US children do less well in areas such as health and education than their peers in most other countries.

Providing more cash benefits in the pre-school years, strengthening pre- and post-natal services and early childhood education, especially to children in disadvantaged families, can promote well-being for all children. Supporting breast-feeding and teaching parents the importance of a healthy diet and the risks of smoking would also help.

Policy makers should consider offering financial incentives, such as cash payments or food vouchers, to high-risk pregnant women to boost the take-up of pre-natal services, as some countries do. The Hungarian birth grant, for example, is paid on the condition that expectant mothers have at least four pre-natal health checks.

Most OECD countries concentrate child spending in compulsory education. But often, school systems are not designed to address the problems of disadvantaged children. More of this money should be spent on helping less advantaged students within schools, through mentoring and out-of-school programmes, to improve behaviour and educational attainment.

Journalists are invited to contact Simon Chapple (tel. + 33 1 45 24 85 45) or Dominic Richardson ( tel. + 33 1 45 24 94 56) in the OECD’s Social Policy Division. The report is available to journalists on the password-protected site.

Further information on Doing Better for Children, including country highlights, multilingual summaries, a media briefing and key data representing main stories, is available at

Country highlights are available for AustraliaAustria, CanadaFrance, GermanyItalyJapanMexicoNew ZealandSwitzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.


How to obtain this publication

Readers can access the full version of Doing Better for Children, choosing from the following options:

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  • Order from your local distributor.
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