International Comparisons of Child Wellbeing: Social Determinant and Social Policy Contexts
International comparative research is a growing field within social work, social welfare policy, and public health. Increasingly, social work researchers are keen to draw on international comparisons as a tool to learn more about child wellbeing in the United States and its peer countries by exploiting country-level differences in social welfare contexts and health policy and the impact of these differences on the health and development of children. Recent comparative reports on health indicators from the Institute of Medicine and on social expenditures and wellbeing indices from the OECD have brought attention to the wide variation in child wellbeing, even in wealthy countries. These reports have also called for more research to disentangle international differences, particularly the disadvantaged status of the United States compared to peer countries. Disparities in child wellbeing—whether in terms of health, development, or academic achievement—magnify throughout the life course, which makes early life inequalities even more alarming.
This symposium brings together four distinct, yet thematically synergistic, papers on international comparative research examining the social determinants of child wellbeing and how social policies influence child wellbeing in several different countries. Social work and social welfare scholarship has much to contribute to this important and growing field of research and the related national and international discussions on the international dimension of child wellbeing. The first paper provides an overview of trends in child and family policy using the well-established Esping-Andersen welfare regime framework and analyzes how various frameworks have been able to adapt to changes over the past 20 years. This research provides a macro policy perspective to get the symposium started, and to provide context for a broader discussion during the session. The second paper examines the association between public preschool expenditures, an important form of early childhood social welfare spending, and the academic development of children in the fourth grade in 7 different countries. This paper provides an important analysis of social welfare investments during childhood. The third paper focuses on disparities in child behaviors, as well as the labeling of these behaviors, in the United States and United Kingdom. Disparities in teachers’ perceptions of behavioral issues by race/ethnicity are found in both countries, setting the stage for disadvantaged children’s educational trajectories. These findings shed light on an important determinant of child wellbeing internationally in school systems. Finally, the fourth paper examines another important social determinant of child wellbeing—socioeconomic inequalities in childhood obesity. Childhood obesity is an increasing health issue internationally, and one that may be particularly amenable to intervention. This study finds that the United States stands alone in its high levels of inequality in child obesity. In sum, these papers touch on several important dimensions of international child wellbeing, while providing a thorough overview of cutting-edge social work and social welfare research in this field.