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Washington/Brussels/Guetersloh, 27/10/2011

Strong Variations in Social Justice Within the OECD

Bertelsmann Stiftung publishes Social Justice Index for 31 OECD countries

Cover Social Justice in the OECD
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Discrepancies in poverty prevention and fair access to education within the OECD are significant: Whereas the northern European states perform best in promoting equal opportunities, many European and Anglo-Saxon welfare states are falling behind. The United States, Greece, Chile, Mexico and Turkey are the worst performers. These are the results of a recent study conducted by the Bertelsmann Stiftung that examines the policies of OECD countries on poverty prevention, access to education, labor market inclusion, health, intergenerational justice, and social cohesion and non-discrimination.

Aart De Geus, member of the Bertelsmann Stiftung Executive Board, said the study shows that "social justice and economic performance are by no means mutually exclusive. Northern European countries in particular demonstrate that the opposite is true." Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland top the ranking.

Poverty and the growing gap between the rich and poor are major problems within the OECD. Among the 31 countries surveyed, an average of 10.8 percent of the population is considered “poor,” meaning these individuals live on less than half the country's median income. Of particular concern is the rate of child poverty. On average, some 12.3 percent of children in the OECD live below the poverty level. Where children live in poverty, the fundamental prerequisites of social justice are lacking; social participation and self-determined living are barely possible under those conditions. By way of comparison: In Denmark, which along with Finland and Norway posted the lowest rates of child poverty in the OECD-wide comparison, only 3.7 percent of children are poor. The figures are dramatically different in the USA, where the rate is 21.6 percent. Only Turkey, Chile and Mexico score worse. Preventing child poverty depends not least on stronger efforts to balance work and family life. Measures such as expanding options for childcare, for example, can broaden the parents’ income base.

Fair access to education is also considerably underdeveloped in several of the 31 countries surveyed. Once again it is the northern countries Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Denmark who perform best on this point. Wealthy countries such as the United States (rank 20), the United Kingdom (rank 21) and even Germany (rank 22) perform disappointingly, and find themselves in the lower third of the ranking. Inclusive education systems and greater investment in early childhood education are key factors in leveling the playing field in education.

Improving labor market inclusion is another central tenet to ensuring social justice. The global economic crisis has had dramatic consequences for most OECD countries and exacerbated social tensions.  Matters are particularly dire in Spain, where the overall unemployment rate has shot up to above 20 percent, long-term unemployment -- a key driver of poverty and social exclusion -- is at 9 percent, and youth unemployment an appalling 41.6 percent. These figures are explosive in the context of growing social tensions.

The cross-national study also demonstrates differences in the area of health. Of particular concern here is the fact that individuals’ perceived health status varies considerably across socioeconomic boundaries. In countries like Portugal, the Czech Republic and Germany, for example, a much smaller percentage of those with lower incomes consider themselves healthy compared to those with higher incomes.

Finally, from the standpoint of intergenerational justice, many OECD countries face immense challenges. The drastic increase in the rates of national debt observed in most of these countries threatens to leave a crushing burden for future generations to bear. The worst offenders on this point are Ireland, Iceland, Italy, Greece and Japan, which has amassed debt equaling more than 200 percent of its GDP.

"The report we presented today shows that child poverty and access to education are among the main concerns on the long-term agenda," said De Geus. "The comparison we offer is based on a range of different indicators, and is meant to support countries in the design and implementation of their future political and economic agendas. It would be a historical mistake to focus only on the current euro-crisis. Only a solid long term perspective can bring confidence to both citizens and financial markets."


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Headshot of Daniel Schraad-Tischler Daniel Schraad-Tischler
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