Countries Where Children Have the Best Opportunities

January 28, 2014 by Mike Sauter

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Is America really the land of opportunity? According to data just released by Gallup, 80% of Americans believe children in the country have the opportunities to learn and grow. While 80% may seem like a lot, residents of at least 18 other countries were more likely to think their nation gave children opportunities to succeed.

Americans are not quite as negative about children’s prospects as the residents of some nations. The country with the lowest score of the countries measured by Gallup was Estonia, where just 43% of those surveyed thought children had an opportunity to thrive . Of course, there are also countries such as Switzerland, where 95% of those surveyed thought their nation’s children had opportunities to learn and grow every day. Based on data published by Gallup, 24/7 Wall St. examined countries where children have the best opportunities.

Click here to see the countries where children have the best opportunities

One of the more obvious factors that appears to contribute to perceived opportunities for children is wealth. Not surprisingly, most of the countries where children were more likely to thrive had relatively high GDPs per capita. Of the 10 developed countries where children had smallest chance to learn and grow, only Germany had a GDP per capita in 2013 above $30,000. Of the 10 countries where children are most likely to thrive, only the Czech Republic had a GDP per capita less than $30,000.

Of course, there are certainly wealthier countries where children have less opportunities. The U.S., which had the sixth-highest GDP per capita world-wide — at $52,839 — in 2013 was 19th in Gallup’s survey out of 29 countries.

In an interview with 24/7 Wall St., Gallup editor and analyst Julie Ray pointed out that while national prosperity is a factor, even wealth distribution is also common. In fact, all of the five top-scoring countries in the Gallup survey had among the highest income equality, as measured by the Gini coefficient. The U.S., meanwhile had the worst income equality of any of the 29 countries surveyed by Gallup.

Safety also appears to be a factor in how the country’s residents feel about the opportunities for their children. In eight of the 10 countries where residents believed children had the “opportunity to learn and grow every day,” less than 25% of those surveyed felt unsafe walking alone at night.

In Norway, one of these countries, just 11% reported feeling unsafe. Meanwhile, in four of the five countries where children were the least likely to thrive, according to the survey, 35% or more reported feeling unsafe.

Ray agreed that the connection made sense. “When you aren’t afraid in your community… when you have law and order at your foundation, people tend to thrive because they aren’t worried about being killed or beaten up… they feel safe.”

Access to quality education likely had an impact on these responses as well. The countries where children were more likely to thrive were more likely to have higher proportions of residents with a tertiary education — the equivalent of a college or technical education. The outcome of that education did not appear to be as much of a factor, considering that test scores varied wildly across the list.

Based on a recent Gallup report, 24/7 Wall St. examined the 10 nations where children had the most opportunities to learn and grow. Surveys used for the report were conducted in 2012. We reviewed other Gallup surveys, including one on safety and one on overall life satisfaction, all for 2012 as well. In addition, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the United Nations Children’s Fund’s (UNICEF) report, Innocenti Report Card 11, as well as two reports from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). One OECD report, PISA 2012 Results in Focus, focused on student achievement, while the other, Education at a Glance 2013, provided information on the education systems in various nations. Additionally, we also considered figures published by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on GDP growth, GDP per capita (adjusted for purchasing power parity) and population. These figures are for 2013 unless noted and represent estimates. Income inequality data were compiled by the CIA World Factbook, and are for the most recent period available.

These are the countries where children have the best opportunities.

10. United Kingdom
> Pct. reporting children can thrive: 88% (tied-8th most)
> GDP per capita: $37,299
> Population: 63.8 million

Children may thrive in the U.K. partly because of its quality education system. The graduation rate among older U.K. secondary students was more than 91% in 2010, substantially better than the OECD average of 84%. That year, U.K. graduates were also more likely to continue their education at tertiary institutions in 2010. Also in that year, 38% of U.K. graduates continued their education at tertiary institutions, more than in most other developed nations. In UNICEF’s most recent report, the U.K. ranked a relatively low 16th out of 29 developed countries in children’s well-being. While the ranking implies there’s room for improvement, it’s considerably better than its ranking in UNICEF’s previous report. For example, less children lived in poverty in 2012 compared to 2011.

9. Czech Republic
> Pct. reporting children can thrive: 88% (tied-8th most)
> GDP per capita: $27,214
> Population: 10.5 million

The Czech Republic joined the European Union in 2004, and it may be on track to adopt the euro in the next few years. The country, however, is still quite poor, with GDP per capita at just $27,214 in 2013. The U.S.’s GDP per capita, by contrast, was more than $50,000 last year. Additionally, not even 60% of Czech residents felt safe walking alone at night in 2012, among the least compared with other developed nations. Despite the lack of wealth and some safety concerns, 88% of Czech respondents to Gallup’s survey said they believed children in their country had chances to learn and grow every day, tied with Canada and the U.K. Czech school systems provide a good education, according to 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores. That year, Czech students had better reading and science scores than U.S. students, as well several European countries.

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8. Canada
> Pct. reporting children can thrive: 88% (tied-8th most)
> GDP per capita: $43,146
> Population: 35.2 million

Roughly 88% of respondents in Canada believed their children had everyday opportunities to learn and grow. On top of that, 84% thought children in their country were well-treated, more than in all but three other nations. Canadians largely believe their country is safe, with 84% telling Gallup in 2012 that they felt secure walking alone at night. In the U.S. just 74% of respondents felt that way. Parents also had opportunities to provide an education for their children. According to the OECD, more than half of adults 25-64 years old had a tertiary-level education as of 2010, the highest percentage of any nation. The nation’s economy also has strengthened, with recent IMF forecasts projecting higher GDP growth rates in both 2014 and 2015.

7. Ireland
> Pct. reporting children can thrive: 89% (tied-6th most)
> GDP per capita: $41,265
> Population: 4.6 million

After three years, Ireland recently exited the more-than $100 billion bailout it received to ward off bankruptcy during the eurozone crisis. As part of the bailout, Ireland had to agree to budgetary demands established by the Troika: the IMF, European Central Bank, and European Commission. However, despite the country’s economic troubles, prospects for children’s quality of life appears to have been little affected. According to Gallup, most Irish residents thought their country provides opportunities for children to learn and grow. UNICEF rated the country 10th for children’s well-being among wealthy nations, citing the quality of the housing and environment. Despite this, many younger residents still choose to leave the country, often due to economic factors.

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6. Iceland
> Pct. reporting children can thrive: 89% (tied-6th most)
> GDP per capita: $40,739
> Population: 300,000

Iceland was one of the first nations to suffer from the global economic crisis. Since then, Iceland’s unemployment rate has declined to just 5.4% in 2013, according to Eurostat, and the country may be on its way to recovery. According to the IMF, real GDP is expected to grow by more than 2% in 2014. Even with lingering effects from the recession, the vast majority of Icelanders did not self-report to be suffering in 2012. In fact, just 1% of survey respondents said they suffered that year, less than any country reviewed by Gallup. Icelandic children also benefit from a well-funded education system. Iceland invested 8% of the country’s GDP in educational institutions in 2010, more than any other country in the OECD.

5. Denmark
> Pct. reporting children can thrive: 90%
> GDP per capita: $37,794
> Population: 5.6 million

Ninety percent of Danish respondents to Gallup’s survey agreed that children in their country had daily opportunities to thrive. One contributing factor that allows parents to help their children develop may be the country’s generous parental leave program. New mothers and fathers can expect a full year of paid leave in total. In addition, comprehensive state-funded daycare and childcare programs help improve the well-being of children and also ease the parents’ transitions back to the workforce. Educational institutions are also very well funded in Denmark. The country spent 7.9% of its GDP on education in 2010, more than all but two countries reviewed.

ALSO READ: The Most Educated Countries in the World

4. Finland
> Pct. reporting children can thrive: 92%
> GDP per capita: $35,863
> Population: 5.5 million

Finland’s school system has been often touted as one of the world’s best. However, it has recently dropped in international student achievement rankings. Still, as of 2010, Finnish adults were among the most likely people in all developed countries to have a tertiary education, and the country reported similarly impressive secondary school graduation rates. Also, the OECD praised Finland for reducing disparities in student achievement, as well as for its early detection of struggling students. Finns surveyed by Gallup also stated that children had ample opportunities to learn and grow, while 80% felt children were treated well — higher than in most nations. Yet the country has had to deal with a slumping economy. According to IMF figures from October 2013, the nation’s economy shrank by 0.8% in 2012 and an estimated 0.6% last year.

3. Norway
> Pct. reporting children can thrive: 93% (tied-2nd most)
> GDP per capita: $55,398
> Population: 5.1 million

Norway is among the wealthiest countries in the world, with a GDP of $55,398 per capita as of 2013. Additionally, the country’s economy was not as hard-hit as many other nations in Europe. The IMF estimated last October that Norway’s economy would grow 1.6% in 2013. While this growth rate may not be impressive, it is considerably better than European countries. In addition to a stable economy and a massive government oil fund, Norway residents are quite happy. Just over 1% of the population described itself as suffering in 2012, among the lowest percentages in the world. Additionally, most Norwegians believed the country’s children had opportunities to learn and grow, and that it is safe to walk alone at night there. According to UNICEF, Norway is the second best country for child well-being, behind only the Netherlands.

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2. Luxembourg
> Pct. reporting children can thrive: 93% (tied-2nd most)
> GDP per capita: $77,935
> Population: 500,000

Luxembourg is one of the best places in the world for children to live, according to its residents. Not only did 93% say kids had the opportunity to learn and grow every day, but also 88% said they believed children were treated with dignity and respect, trailing only Switzerland in both measures. Although the country’s PISA scores — which compare student achievement against a large number of countries — were hardly spectacular, more than 35% of adults had a tertiary degree as of 2010, a figure that nearly doubled during the preceding decade. Additionally, Luxembourg’s economy is very strong by some measures. Government debt is fairly limited, while GDP per capita was estimated at nearly $78,000 in 2013, second-highest in the world behind Qatar.

1. Switzerland
> Pct. reporting children can thrive: 95%
> GDP per capita: $45,999
> Population: 8.1 million

As many as 95% of Swiss residents believed children in their country had opportunities for success, and 92% believed children were treated well, both more than in any other nation reviewed by Gallup. According to a UNICEF report released last year, Switzerland was also one of just a handful of countries where the childhood obesity rate was less than 10%. Additionally, teenage pregnancy rates in Switzerland were lower than all 29 developed nations considered by UNICEF. Swiss children were also well-educated, achieving above OECD average scores in each of three categories — math, reading and science– reviewed in the most recent PISA assessment.