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New York City sent its children back to school a few week ago, my child among them. She started kindergarten in a local public school. It was enough of a mind-bender to consider that our beautiful baby is now big enough to wear a uniform and learn to read, yet I could not help considering as well the fact that with her entrance into the school system we are officially handing part of the responsibility for our child’s welfare to the state. The fact that the United States is one of the top five spenders on child welfare among wealthy countries does not make me feel more at ease. According to a recent study conducted by the OECD on child welfare, reported in the Economist, US-children rank among the lowest in certain indicators—such as material well-being and educational well-being—despite the high price tag. In fact, the study generally showed a poor relationship between funding and outcomes. High spenders such as Norway also had high rankings on a number of the study’s measures, but were middle of the road on others.

We have written before about the imperfect relationship between funding and outcomes in any number of areas. That relationship is particularly complex when it comes to issues such as “child welfare” as so many factors are in play—home environment, socio-economic status, health, education. There is significant evidence that some simple, common sense interventions such as vaccinations improve individual and public health; yet they are joined by dozens of other efforts that have shown decidedly mixed results, such as technology in the classroom. Significant advocacy dollars are spent to change school lunch choices in schools, and yet a 2007 study shows that weight gain in young children happens mostly in the summer.

All this ambiguity may lead donors to throw up their hands, but that is not the solution. I posit instead that we can start by rejecting the idea that problems such as child welfare can be solved through financial commitments alone. We arguably could spend less and still do better.

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