The Best Place on Earth To Be a Mom

by Roger Alford

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So where are the happiest mothers in the world? According to Save the Children, it’s Norway. Norway has the highest ratio of female-to-male earned income, the highest contraceptive prevalence rate, one of the lowest under-5 mortality rate and one of the most generous maternity leave policies in the developed world.

The other countries in the top ten on the list are Australia, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, New Zealand, Finland, Belgium, Netherlands, and France.

Alas, the United States does not fare so well. It ranks 31st in the 2011 Mother’s Index of the Best Places in the World to be a Mother. According to Save the Children, there are several reasons why the United States does not fare better:

1. The United States’ rate maternal mortality is 1 in 2,100—the highest of any industrialized nation. A woman in the United States is more than 7 times as likely as a woman in Italy or Ireland to die from pregnancy-related causes.

2. The United States’ under-5 mortality rate is 8 per 1,000 births. Forty countries performed better. A child in the U.S. is more than twice as likely as a child in countries such as Finland, Greece, or Slovenia to die before reaching age 5.

3. Only 58 percent of children in the United States are enrolled in preschool—the fifth lowest country in the developed world.

4. The United States has the least generous maternity leave policy of any wealthy nation.

5. The United States lags behind other countries in the political status of women. Only 17 percent of congressional seats are held by women, compared to 45 percent in Sweden and 43 percent in Iceland.

5 Responses

  1. Thanks for posting this Roger.

    And Happy Mothers Day to any moms who might be reading this!

    Being acqainted with the “health and social justice” literature, none of this surprises me (I assembled a reading list for this a couple of years ago at Ratio Juris).

    It also calls to mind more generally the research discussed in The Real Worlds of Welfare Capitalism by Robert E. Goodin, et al., (1999) in which the three main types of “welfare state regimes” in Europe and North America: liberal, social democratic and corporatist, were assessed according to criteria (‘moral values’) such states have traditionally used to justify their socio-economic and political policies. The standards of assessment were as follows: promoting economic efficiency, reducing poverty, promoting social equality, promoting social integration and avoiding social exclusion, promoting social stability, and promoting autonomy. The “liberal” type of welfare regime (the three types are explained in the book), exemplified by the US, fared worst among the bunch, the social democratic regime clearly superior in most if not all respects.  In short, should we see the aforementioned criteria as worthy political objectives, a social democratic regime is best suited to realizing them.

    In development studies, the welfare or well-being of women is one important index used to infer how a country is doing overall with regard to socio-economic development and social justice goals. Perhaps we should do the same with regard to the hyper-developed world!

  2. I think it is also relevant to note that with the exception of France and the exceptionally-well-ran Australia, the top ten, collectively, are only the 4th biggest US State.

    It would also be relevant to compare separately the ranking of the developing country population of the US (illegals and their immediate descendants – a bigger number than most of the top ten above) with the ranking of the rest of the US.

    Not saying that the US could not and should not do much better, and not saying that Nordic countries get a hell of a lot right on welfare. But America’s problems are in many ways closest to France’s – hopefully America can solve them without near-universal Arab(Hispanic) youth unemployment.

  3. (1) The infant mortality rate is a notoriously unreliable indicator, because U.S. hospitals try to save severely underweight babies who are simply recorded as stillborn elsewhere.

    (2) The U.S. flexible labor market means that far more part-time and work-at-home jobs are available than in most European countries.  In Europe, it’s primarily work full time or not at all.

    (3) What does the percentage of women in politics in a country have to do with how good it is to be a mother in that country?

    (4) Why is “preschool” inherently better than other child care arrangements? Many people I know rely on grandparents to watch their pre-K kids.   Others prefer to be full-time moms, though sometimes with regular babysitters?  Is that worse than “preschool?” Says who?

  4. While I appreciate OJ commenting on the subject of motherhood and international trends, I am suprised your analysis of Save the Children’s obviously lopsided agenda is so uncritical.

    How can one back the assertion, for example, that the number of women in parliament is a valid indicator for maternal happiness? Rwanda has the most gender-balanced legislature and one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates.

    If Norway is such a happier place to be than the US, why is the country’s suicide rate higher?

    As for contraceptive prevalence rate as a measure of the joy in motherhood, wouldn’t the opposite seem to be true?

    Just look at the numbers. Europe’s fertility rate is in a death spiral. American mothers, alone in the developed world, are having enough babies to replace themselves.

    Demographers now believe that optimism, a correlate of “happiness,” has a lot to do with this fact. And it’s not just immigrant women having more babies; American moms of European descent have more children than their counterparts in the Old World.

    As for the increase in the U.S. maternal mortality rate: shame on Save the Children (and the rest of us for that matter) for not getting to the bottom of this.

    There is a deafening silence in the literature on the link between maternal deaths and abortion, for example. The nation with the lowest maternal death rate, Ireland, has one of the world’s most restrictive laws. Same goes for Chile, which has a total ban on abortion and the  lowest rate of maternal deaths in Latin America. 

    No matter where one stands on the issue, we should agree that better data is badly needed.  Why is it that the rise in US maternal death rates coincides with the onset of widely practiced medical/chemical abortion? We don’t know. We haven’t even counted the number of abortions in California, where they are highest, in over a decade. 

    Save the Children cherry picks data to promote their apparent belief that happiness for women lies in having fewer babies, putting them in day care, and going off to a presumably more satisfying job in the workforce. 

    Might it not just be possible that having more babies and staying at home with them could also be an indicator of maternal “happiness”?

  5. Thanks for all your comments.  Like every other ratings game, Save the Children’s methodology (pp. 31-33) is open to dispute.  I agree completely that there are other factors that could be included but that were not, and such factors would likely alter the results. 

    I also recognize that countries such as Norway have extremely high GDP because of natural resources (second-largest net exporter of gas, seventh-largest net exporter of oil), and they therefore have the luxury to make choices most other countries could not financially afford to make.         

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