COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The United States fared worst of four Western nations -- including Italy, Sweden, and the former West Germany -- in a comparison of child well-being measures, a new study has found.

But the poor showing of the United States can't be blamed solely on the decline of the traditional family, as some observers have suggested. Sweden, which showed the greatest family decline of the four countries, also fared relatively well on measures of child well-being.

Sweden's relative success is most likely due to its generous social and economic programs for children and families, programs that are lacking in the United States, said Sharon Houseknecht, co-author of the study and professor of sociology at Ohio State University.

The findings suggest that the new welfare reform law recently passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton will hurt children in the United States even more, according to


Overall, Italy, which had the least decline in the traditional family, also scored best on child well-being.

"Children seem to be better off when they live in a society with traditional family patterns, like Italy," Houseknecht said. "But Sweden shows that there are things society can do to lessen that negative consequences associated with non- traditional families."

Houseknecht conducted the study with Jaya Sastry, a doctoral student in sociology at Ohio State. Their study appears in the current issue of the Journal of Marriage and the Family.

The researchers measured traditional family decline in each country using national statistics on eight variables. Countries that showed high levels of family decline were those with higher divorce rates, higher birth rates for unmarried women and higher percentages of mothers in the labor force who have young children, among other factors.

By these measures, Sweden had the highest level of family decline by a wide margin. The United States ranked second, followed by West Germany. Italy showed the least evidence of family decline.

Each country was also ranked on six indicators of child well- being: average reading performance scores at age 14, percent of children in poverty (single mother and two-parent families), deaths of infants from presumed abuse, teen suicide rate, juvenile delinquency rate and juvenile drug offense rate.

Children in the United States scored lowest on four of the six indicators (percentage of children in poverty, presumed child abuse death rate, teen suicide rate and juvenile drug offense rate). Italy and Sweden were both worst on one well-being indicator each.

Italy scored best on four of the six child well-being indicators. Sweden was best on two of the indicators, and very close to being the best on a third. The former West Germany ranked near the middle on all the indicators.

Houseknecht said the results indicate that traditional family structures do have benefits for children in countries like Italy. But she doesn't believe it's possible stop the decline in the traditional family in places like the United States.

"But then the question becomes how do we best protect our children. I think Sweden offers a good example to follow," she said.

Sweden's welfare policies are the most egalitarian and generous of the four countries studied, Houseknecht said. For example, there is a guaranteed minimum child support payment for single- parent families, a universal cash benefit for all children, national health insurance, large subsidies for child care, free school lunches, home help service, extensive paid parental leave for either parent and the right to six-hour work days for parents of young children.

"Compared with Sweden, the United States hasn't been doing much to help children and families, and now, with welfare reform, we're cutting back on what we did do," Houseknecht said.

Contact: Sharon Houseknecht, (614) 292-6700;

Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457;

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