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9 Countries That Do It Better: Why Does Europe Take Better Care of Its People Than America?

The world's wealthy democracies have somewhat different priorities, leading to some very different outcomes for their citizens.

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Not surprisingly, Denmark, at 5.4 percent, has the lowest poverty rate among the European-style countries.

The OECD uses a different standard of poverty than does the U.S. government. It counts anyone making less than half of the median income as living in poverty. By that standard, we are plagued with a poverty rate of over 17 percent, higher than all the OECD countries other than Mexico, Israel and Chile. (The average among OECD countries in general is 11.1 percent.)

Child Poverty: Denmark

One of the most tragic comparisons for America, among the richest countries in the world, is that more than one in five children live in poverty, as measured by the OECD ( PDF). The OECD average is under 13 percent, and Denmark again comes in last, with childhood poverty at around 4 percent. (Following it are Finland, Norway, Austria and Sweden.)

Gender Gap: Italy

Because women are disproportionately represented in lower paying jobs, and people at the bottom of the wage ladder get the most benefits of union membership, high unionization rates are also correlated with lower gender pay-gaps – it's one of several factors, but it's a key one.

Italy has the second highest union rate outside of Scandinavia, and also boasts the smallest gender gap. A female worker in the middle of the pack makes just 1.3 percent less than her male counterpart in Italy. Compare that with American women, who earn more than 20 percent less than American men. (The OECD average is 16 percent, and we're not the worst – that distinction goes to Japan among the European-style economies.)

Taking Care of the Young

At 6.7 deaths per 1,000 live births, the U.S. had the highest infant mortality rate among the high-income nations in 2006. Iceland, with 1.4 deaths/ 1,000 live births, had the lowest.

Among high-income countries, only Canada spent a lower share of its economic output on family benefits, services and tax breaks than the U.S., which devoted about 1.25 percent of GDP. France, which has battled low fertility rates for years, spends almost 4 percent.

The U.S. is the only advanced country that doesn't offer paid maternity and/or paternity leave.

Sweden offers the longest paid leave – 16 months – at about 80 percent of one's income. Denmark allows the parents to divide a year off, with full pay.

Early childhood care and preschool programs confer long-lasting benefits on children who participate in them. About a third of American kids aged 3-5 were enrolled in such programs in 2008, compared with about two-thirds of kids in Denmark.

Taking Care of the Old: Luxembourg

Conservatives paint more progressive countries as being mired with chronically high unemployment. But there's a bit of sleight-of-hand at work: looking only at workers in their prime years, the U.S. has a low employment rate relative to most European countries. Ten of them -- as well as Australia, Canada and Japan – had higher employment rates for people in their prime working years.

But we work our elderly a lot harder than they do in other countries. Among those aged 55-64, over 60 percent of Americans work, compared with just 35.3 percent in Belgium.

The Social Security system in the U.S. replaces 42 percent of the median salary – only the UK is stingier among the wealthy countries (but it pays a bigger share of the wages of lower-income workers). Iceland replaces 109 percent of the earnings of someone in the middle of the economic pack; Luxembourg and the Netherlands replace about 90 percent. The OECD average is 60 percent.

 
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