Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Beyond the Number of Toys: Measuring Children's Welfare

In the past few decades the American youth have been setting the trends in the world, and young people in other countries try to imitate their American counterparts in every way. They listen to American music, wear American clothing, and eat American fast food. It is widely accepted that the American way of life is “cool.” But behind the glamorous billboards, are Americans actually happier than everyone else? Not really, according to a report published by Unicef last week. An article in the Economist titled “Suffer the Children” states that the report compares the well-being of young people in 21 rich countries, and concluded that British and American youths endure the worst quality of life of any. In contrast, North European children, especially the Nordics, apparently have a lovely time.” Such information is shocking and deserves attention from the government and the American people. However the measures used as indicators of the children’s welfare should be examined in depth to ensure that the conclusions of the report are well-founded.

The chart on the right shows that the Unicef report uses both objective and subjective measures as indicators of children’s wellbeing. These cross-sectional results are determined by life circumstances, such as education and family income, and the children’s self-reported levels of happiness. Some doubt the validity of the report and argue that the subjective measures are prone to cultural bias and the objective measures present an incomplete picture of the children’s quality of life. Further study of empirical data is needed in order to test the merit of these measures.

The effect of the objective measures can be determined by studying the change in children’s subjective wellbeing by allowing only one factor to vary at a time while holding all other circumstances constant. The measures that do not make statistically significant differences in children’s happiness should be eliminated. And as time progresses, relevant new measures should be added to reflect changes in children’s lives.

The validity and consistency of subjective measures can also be tested in different ways. Psychologist Ed Diener concludes from his studies that “self-reports of subjective well-being have substantial validity, as demonstrated by their convergence with other types of measures such as informant reports and biological measures of well-being.” For instance, by measuring a child’s brain waves, one can compare his neural activity to those corresponding to positive and negative emotions; and by asking the child’s parents, teachers, and friends to rate his happiness, one can observe if the child’s appeared well-being is consistent with his self-reported results. Regarding the consistency of the survey results with respect to time change, Diener states, “although certain response artifacts such as a respondent’s current mood can bias the reports, we have found that these usually pose little threat to validity.” To test this claim, the same survey should be given to a child multiple times to see whether his answers depend on transient emotions. If Unicef includes a section that presents the empirical evidence which reflect the validity of the measurements used to evaluate happiness in the report, the conclusions would be more clear and convincing.

The Economist suggests that “the report could cast more light […] on how child welfare is changing over time.” Collecting and analyzing time series data is very important in the study of well-being because it is hard to compare the survey results gathered at one point in time from different countries. Self-reported level of happiness can be affected by social and cultural expectations. In some countries, for example, the people are encouraged to be modest, and their welfare may contain a downward bias as a result. Making accurate generalized conclusions from cross-sectional data thus becomes especially difficult. On the other hand, a panel study that follows the same group of survey participants or at least a synthetic panel study featuring the same birth cohort in a country would demonstrate how subjective wellbeing changes as the group ages. This causes some objective circumstances such as cultural background to be controlled, which isolates the effect of time-variant variables, such as employment rate and family income. As the Unicef report indicates, the children’s wellbeing and government spending are positively related. Perhaps the American government should offer more funding to support the study of children’s welfare over an extended period of time and the search for ways to improve their wellbeing.

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